The Good Thief
The gentleman’s casino heist film is well-established within the genre and typically should feature a flamboyant location shot with beautiful lighting and camerawork, and a complex plot that is driven forward by a debonair and dashing leading man. The Good Thief, in its own way, ticks these boxes; however it is far from typical in its interpretation of each.
Although the story takes place in the south of France, with the casino in question located in Monte Carlo, this is not the glossy Riviera usually recorded. The Good Thief, though beautifully shot, is a neon-lit nightmare of dark alleys and grim backstreets, where the plaster is peeling and the windows are shuttered at night. It is not some pretence of the south of France, but a glimpse into its reality, as the location work and filming style presents one of the most authentic on-screen representations of that area I have seen. The plot has the right twists and turns, but instead of being a complicated and convoluted series of audience surprises it moves forward with logical turns that feel organic. At the centre of the story, the titular thief is dashing and debonair, but not in any way one might expect.
The Good Thief begins with the hero—a half-French, half-American thief and con artist played by Nick Nolte—down on his luck and embracing his spiralling demise. He is addicted to heroin, a compulsive gambler, and is so far down a losing streak he wouldn’t know good luck if it walked in on him shooting up, which is exactly what happens. A chance encounter with a young girl, trafficked by a pimp from outside the city, leads Nolte’s thief to intervene and help a detective—played with charm and confidence by Tchéky Karyo—who is facing a potential hostage situation. The whole scene plays out breathlessly, with flickering frames showing us the haze of Nolte’s high, and it is in this chaos that Nolte’s character makes something of a decision. He is going to push himself to the bottom, so he will have nowhere else to go but up.
The young girl turns out to be Nolte’s saving grace, and whilst there are moments she flirts with him as an older and wiser father-figure suitor, he is not interested in her company romantically. A lesser film would have exploited the attractive young girl being attracted to the older hero, but this is no cheap tale. Nutsa Kukhianidze plays the role with just the right balance of sultriness and innocence, but it is the writing which sets this film apart. Though The Good Thief is an adaptation of an earlier French film, Bob le Flambeur, it has its own strong identity, and that is thanks to the writing and direction of Neil Jordan.
Nolte is gravelly and rough, yet overflows in charisma. His character is liked by everyone, much to the disdain of his enemies who cannot help be enamoured towards him despite their loathing of him, and it is only through Nolte’s performance that this becomes believable. He is the epitome of the lovable rogue, in that even when he is jabbing a needle into his arm he has a glint in his eye and wit on his lips. In contrast, Ralph Fiennes’ uncredited appearance is cold and hard, presenting the perfect counterpoint to Nolte’s swagger.
For its time, The Good Thief is remarkably progressive. When assembling his crew, Nolte discovers one of his old criminal friends has transitioned from he to she. Professional wrestler Sarah Bridges takes on this role with both aggressive masculine bravado and also vulnerable femininity. Director Jordan is no stranger to genderfluidity in his characters, and he has previously explored crossdressing and androgynism as well as transgenderism, but here he walks a difficult line. Putting a trans character amidst a group of career criminals is asking for a slew of homophobic and transphobic comments without recourse, but that is not the case in The Good Thief. Bridges’ character is where the film sets itself above many of its contemporaries, both at the time and since. There are a few comments from the wider crew, particularly from Nolte’s closest allies played by Gérard Darmon and Saïd Taghmaoui, yet Nolte’s character responds to Bridges’ change with acceptance and, quickly, a warm embrace. During the first conversation after the reveal Nolte uses Bridges’ character’s former pronoun, then he switches to the correct choice for the rest of the film. There is one gag which feels a little discriminatory out of context, however within the camaraderie and banter shown between Nolte and Bridges—and the wider criminal crew—it feels natural and playful, as opposed to malicious. All in all, the situation is tackled with dignity, as although it shows the misconceptions and judgements of men who do not know better, the character is treated with respect, as opposed to being played for laughs.
Aristotle, who set out the rules for narrative drama still used today, said a story should feel both surprising and inevitable, and The Good Thief embraces that paradox absolutely. The heist itself hinges on sleight of hand, but it reveals it in the build-up. This is a film where we are included in the planning, not one out to shock us with the smarts of the criminals involved. It is also violent and graphic, with explicit drug use, sexual exploitation, addiction and its consequences, and guilt through indoctrination.
The Good Thief takes its name both from the protagonist and the thief crucified beside Jesus, and the crucifixion is discussed in a warm and intimate conversation that occurs halfway through, though it is not here that the heart of the film beats. The true substance in The Good Thief is in the paternal relationship which blossoms between Nolte and Kukhianidze, from their almost comical tragic beginnings to a tearful yet uplifting resolution. This is a dark film full of positivity, and it is a wonderful contradiction to behold.