Chance Encounter
Justin Stewart on The Good Thief

There’s a touching moment near the end of Neil Jordan’s commentary track for the DVD of The Good Thief. Nick Nolte’s Bob Montagnet, who began the film as a seemingly hopeless drug addict raking absolute bottom, descends the gaudy red staircase of a casino in Monaco looking fabulously clean, vigorous, and dashing in his just-bought black suit. Though Bob has spent much of the movie rejuvenating, this image is the actualization of his efforts. Jordan explains this, adding that he also thinks of it as Nolte’s rebirth as a leading actor. The director says nothing more on the subject, just this one simple matter-of-fact statement delivered without undue treacle. And the parallel is true—just as Bob climbs from shooting up on putrid bathroom floors to soberly bilking (legally, as it turns out) the casino, one of cinema’s most aberrant and singular actors went from an unsightly career trough to delivering one of his two or three most special performances.

Not exactly a drought, but the years surrounding the turn of the millennium were a far sight from past triumphs. A best actor Oscar nomination for Affliction in 1998 and a memorable (if largely for its sheer volume) role as a maniacally order-barking lieutenant in The Thin Red Line preceded a four-year sleepwalk boasting precious little more than creampuff Merchant-Ivory (Jefferson in Paris) and a highly iffy screwball noir (Trixie).

And there was the mug shot. Exactly one year after 9/11, an image of a bleary, crazy-haired, Aloha-wearing Nolte pulled over for driving while intoxicated smeared the tabloids. Turns out Nolte was zonked on GHB (the other date rape drug, often taken recreationally), and he eventually pleaded no contest and was plunked into rehab (the hair was for Hulk). An embarrassing image like this can cut deep in such an unslakable visual culture such as ours, and it helped to permanently blemish the actor’s achievements; now at the Academy Awards he was no nominee, just an easy Steve Martin punch line. Quibblers for chronology could note that the shot was taken shortly after The Good Thief was filmed, but regardless, the image serves as an exaggerated representation of Nolte’s fallow period from which Jordan, clearly concerned only with his respect for the actor’s talent, essentially rescued him with the elegantly written lead role in his remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur.

In Nolte, Jordan saw a player equally as handsome (if in a blockier way) and, most importantly, cool as Roger Duchesne from the 1955 film, as well as one who could bring an affable, empathetic vulnerability and loose sense of humor that’s a bit harder to pinpoint in Duchesne’s reticent performance. Nolte’s take, like the movie, succeeds with its impressionistic concerns: His dialogue is so rapidly grunted out that it’s frequently unintelligible; his unparalleled rasp does the movie the service of taking the emphasis off of what’s actually being said and placing it on general atmosphere, and the effects of its utterance. In the film’s crucial scene, a hushed in-church discussion between Bob and his friend and shadow, detective Roger (Tchéky Karyo), concerning the Biblical story of the Good Thief and Bob’s family, Nolte chooses to deliver his lines in almost less than a whisper. Again, not every word is distinguishable, but the tactic brings you closer to the character (perhaps literally as you struggle to hear). It’s emotionally intimate, mysterious—he’s not giving everything so you instinctually want to know more.

It says much about The Good Thief that its most important scene has next to nothing to do with plot, though there is plenty of that to go around. Just as Jordan “doubled” the number of heists at the climax (one, a robbery of a safe intended to distract from another of priceless paintings), so too does he multiply the analytical distance Melville previously placed between his movie’s world and that of the American pulpsters like Asphalt Jungle and They Live by Night he so carefully admired. For Jordan, even more so than Melville, who in real life cared little about the kind of sordid worlds his best films portrayed (he considered gangsters “pathetic losers”), the trappings of the heist genre serve merely as contained canvases for characters and themes. And the specific genre being as inelastically outlined as it is, with the necessity for exact whens, wheres, with-what-gadgets, and how-muches, seems to tax directors in such unusual ways that, like exercising a rarely used muscle, it makes the entirety emerge stronger and clearer. It’d be a richer filmmaking culture in which every director was actually required a heist or thriller. Imagine, for example, how Wes Anderson’s slavishness to his own idiosyncratic but increasingly suffocating (and blurrily linked) style and subject matter would benefit from the limitations. How the distinct framings he’s coined with Robert Yeoman could be injected with tension rather than plain eccentricity, and how the relinquished need to pluck zeitgeist strings would free him to examine beyond his pet themes.

Because of the benefits of his story’s structural requirements The Good Thief is Neil Jordan’s filmmaking at its best, even if it isn’t his best film as Salon’s Charles Taylor excitedly declared. Bob Montagnet emerges every bit as endearingly wounded and complicated as George from Mona Lisa, a story of a similar rebirth. If that movie’s less glamorous details were truer to what Jordan had known in real life, its grubbiness makes it no more lovingly etched. The Good Thief splays out The Crying Game’s neon-night seediness on an exotic European locale, specifically Nice and Monte Carlo but more accurately a foreigner’s dreamy idealized conception of such a romantic liminal zone. The film looks ravishing, its dusky Christmas-lit set pieces bringing to mind Wong Kar-wai, Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations, and the visual light games from certain scenes in Eyes Wide Shut. Like Elliot Goldenthal’s smoky, abstract score, the look compliments Bob’s coolness, as the gruff old man-era Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack does his doubt and angst.

Pure likability, a virtue impossible to underrate, might be The Good Thief’s most abundant resource. A movie that tosses in an unbilled Ralph Fiennes as a pretentious, ill-tempered art fence is a movie that’s having fun, especially when he’s ordering the knifing of a fake Picasso and hissing dialogue like “What I do to both of your faces will definitely be cubist. We’ll call it the New Aesthetic…without an anesthetic.” Other bits of dialogue (“Are you from Bosnia?” “So that’s what they’re calling it these days.” “What brought you here?” “The mayonnaise”), which read like prose poetry, are lifted directly or slightly retooled from Melville and Auguste Le Breton’s Bob le flambeur screenplay with a greatest hits success ratio. Newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze is Anne, the tomboy-sexy street dreamer spirited away by Bob from a descent into depravity he knows too well. Taylor might have been a tad overanxious when he anointed her the most exciting new film actress of the last several years, but even if American audiences haven’t seen much of her since, her vivacious fragile-tough balancing act here so dazzles that it earns her a coast.

There are other perfectly pitched supporting turns (especially Saïd Taghmaoui as young sidekick Paulo and director Emir Kusturica as the unkempt guitar-soloing techie with the key to the score), but ultimately they all orbit Nolte’s cool, battered but unbowed Bob. Jordan saw in the actor a man with his own demons who could heave into the role with a physical, unstudied realism. Critics who chose to attack the performance (Michael Atkinson sourly savaged his “alligatored visage” and saw an actor “lucky to get words out”) now seem like they were both stubbornly unwilling to accept an atypical conception of the character and too eager to lurch straight at the man, not the man as Bob. Nolte and Jordan’s silent rebuttal need only be a point to that same radiant stairway descent, and the unexpected confirmation, so rare at the end of a heist picture, that luck can turn.