The Good Thief (15)
After a slew of poor American remakes of classy European pictures along comes a movie that does justice to the sire that spawned it.
Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief is a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1955 caper movie Bob le flambeur, and offers Nick Nolte another of the juicy character parts that he has made his own in films like Q & A, U-Turn and Affliction.
Nolte is the good thief of the title, a grizzled has-been, lost amidst the back streets of Monte Carlo, down on his luck and living on the triumphs of his past as a professional gambler with a winning streak. An honourable criminal, as full as heroin as he is of self-loathing, Bob yearns for a return to the life he led before he imploded and became a shadow of his former self. He needs a job – a heist that will restore his sense of worth and give him a purpose.
So he comes up with a grand scheme: plan to rob one of Monte Carlo’s casinos while leaking the news to the police via a local stoolie. Then, while the cops are watching his every move, rob an entirely different location with a crack team of specially selected thieves.
With a friendly cop (Tchéky Karyo matching Nolte in every scene) on his trail Bob sets up the elaborate double heist with the aid of the security wizard who invented the vault’s intricate security system. Meanwhile art fence Tony Angel (an uncredited cameo from Ralph Fiennes) hands over a packet of cash to finance the raid. Slowly, Bob begins to claw his way back from rock bottom.
Some critics have dismissed The Good Thief as a stodgy Euro-pudding led by Nolte’s token Yank, but this is far more than just another flaccid remake. Nolte inhabits Bob like a favoured, moth-eaten old jacket, oozing the type of rumpled charm that won Bogart an Oscar in The African Queen. It’s the sort of over-the-hill role he plays so well as he moves into his 60s: gravelly growl, tiny, red-rimmed eyes set in a craggy face – a has-been trying to stave off the ultimate stigma of being classed as a loser.
Director Jordan shows his affinity to the original by retaining the locale of the French Riviera, though his judgement was way off when he cast Russian newcomer Nutsa Kukhiani as a homeless East European teenager who gets mixed up with Bob and his crew. She is the weakest link in an otherwise fine cast (that includes Saïd Taghmaoui, Gérard Darmon and Emir Kusturica) and dilutes the action whenever she is on screen.
Jordan is also keen on tricky photography (courtesy of Chris Menges) and layers the film with different colours and pastels. It looks terrific, and positively reeks of pungent cigarettes, booze, and sweaty apartments. This is neo-noir the way it should be done, with a leisurely set-up, in-depth characters and snappy pay-off.
As in Sam Peckinpah’s best films, The Good Thief is about honour and betrayal, love and respect, and unchanged men in a changed world. Nolte has made a career playing flawed men, and Bob Montagnet, the gambler philosopher who lives by his own credo, is one of his best creations.
Star rating: ***