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Pickpocket: The Criterion Collection

The films of Robert Bresson (including Diary of a Country Priest and Au Hasard Balthazar) follow a formula invented by the director: They feature long fluid takes filmed with the same focal length, are cast almost entirely with non-actors in their first roles, and are about a spirituality born of Christianity, but removed from it. Bresson's style and subject matter have been seen as daunting for some viewers, especially when the stories are about a country priest working out his own spirituality, or the life and death of a mule. However, Bresson's Pickpocket (1959) is commonly regarded as his masterpiece (and it is one), although mostly because it's his most accessible effort. Supposedly influenced by Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953), here he works within the familiar tropes of the crime film — and in doing so, Bresson's sensibilities become more apparent when contrasted against the genre's trappings. Pickpocket stars Martin LaSalle as Michel, a bored youth who pursues a criminal life because he thinks of himself as above the law (if this sounds familiar, it should be noted that, even though Bresson denied the influence of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, he later adapted two of the Russian author's works). Michel tells nothing of his crimes to his few friends, Jeanne (Marika Green) and Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), and he avoids seeing his sick mother (Dolly Scal) due to guilt. Having fumbled some attempts at his new profession, Michel earns his training by a professional (Kassagi), who also utilizes the young man in some elaborate heists. But as successful as Michel becomes, he cannot help but circle around a police inspector (Jean Pelegri) whom he suspects knows exactly what he's up to. A taut exercise, (clocking in at 76 minutes), Pickpocket is a singular experience of cinema, something that could be said of the entirety of Bresson's films. But what separates Pickpocket from his other works is that it manages to do what all great genre pictures accomplish: recast a familiar story into something wholly original. There's a girl, a no-good criminal, and the constant threat of arrest, and yet it seems to cheapen the text to compare it to analogous efforts. And that's because Bresson is not interested in set-pieces as set-pieces, even though the criminal element is skillfully handled. There's a masterful sequence wherein LaSalle, Kasagi, and a third man make off with numerous wallets at a train station, and Bresson conveys the aesthetic beauty of such deft thievery. But the picture does not use these elements an end to themselves, but rather in their role of a character seeking the meaning of life by testing of the boundaries of good and evil, and thus achieving a greater understanding of redemption. This is why Bresson's denouement so powerful — so much so that Paul Schrader paid homage to it twice, first in American Gigolo and then in Light Sleeper. The Criterion Collection presents Pickpocket in a stunningly remastered presentation in its original Academy ratio (1.33:1) with the original monaural French audio on a Dolby Digital 1.0 track. A commentary by Bresson scholar James Quandt is included, while the supplements open with an introduction from Paul Schrader, who notes immediately that this was the most influential film on his career (15 min.). Also on hand are "The Models of Pickpocket" featuring interviews with stars Pierre Leymarie, Marika Green, and Martin LaSalle (52 min.), an interview with Bresson from the French TV show "Cinepanorama" (6 min.), a "Q&A on Pickpocket" with Green and filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Piere Ameris (13 min.), while "Kassagi" (12 min.) shows the co-star/technical advisor's gift for theft. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.

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