Eight Great Pickpockets in Film
By Dan Berry
Who’s to say what a person will do to survive? When it comes down to stealing or starving, there isn’t much of a choice. And so long as humanity remains gullible, providing a bottomless pool of easy marks, there will be an army of insidious individuals looking for a quick score.
One pickpocket is an enigma; thousands are a law of nature. With skills passed down from master to apprentice since the dawn of time, the act of picking a pocket is an art of the highest order and a bona fide profession complete with “corporations.” Of course, it can also be a compulsion. And naturally, it’s a crime. There are always unforeseen consequences.
Such is the case for Kylie, a sexy, streetwise pickpocket in KoldCast TV’s eight-part femme fatale thriller series Clutch. On a quest for her place in the world, Kylie survives on looks, charm and sneaky fingers; but her life changes drastically when she finds herself in the big leagues of organized crime.
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Mysterious, daring, dangerous, sexy, suave, clever, cunning, conniving and cool; the pickpocket is a chameleon, a fascinating creature forever lurking in the unsavory shadows of civilized society searching for prey. Such complex characters were seemingly made for film, and so the pickpocket frequently finds his or her way to the screen. But only the great ones, like Kylie, are forever embedded in culture’s collective memory.
Curt Bois as ‘Pickpocket’ in Casablanca (1942)
The pickpocket who greets visitors to Casablanca with warnings against pickpockets and then makes off with their wallets is a minor character with a major role: His devilishly duplicitous dealings reveal the sordid and sleazy, street-hustling, outlaw nature of the city, setting the atmosphere for one of the greatest films in cinematic history. “I beg of you, watch yourself. Be on guard. This place is full of vultures. Vultures everywhere. Everywhere!”
Teruko Kishi as ‘Ogin’ in Stray Dog, a.k.a. Nora inu (1949)
Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 film Stray Dog (Nora inu) is the basis for every police procedural and buddy cop movie that followed. In other words, we are eternally indebted to him for inspiring such classics as The French Connection, L.A. Confidential and, of course, Cop and a Half.
Set in a bombed-out, post-war Tokyo, during a sweltering heat wave, Stray Dog follows a rookie homicide detective who has his Colt pistol pinched by a pickpocket on the trolley and must scramble to track down the stolen sidearm. His first clue comes from Ogin (Teruko Kishi), a notorious train pickpocket, famous before the war for her beauty and her perfect kimonos. Now middle-aged, she is still plying her trade; but the once regal raider has grown world-weary and visibly run-down, her once elegant kimonos replaced by modern dresses. Ogin’s “fall from grace” and exhausted acceptance of the universal situation has become the standard when painting the trajectory of the female pickpocket on film.
Richard Widmark as ‘Skip McCoy’ in Pickup on South Street (1953)
In Sam Fuller’s hardboiled classic, an impudent pickpocket, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) unwittingly lifts top-secret microfilm and becomes the target of a manhunt: wanted by police, federal agents and members of a Communist spy ring. Many aspects of the film – the hot summer, pickpockets on a train and a world-weary, middle-aged woman of the streets (Thelma Ritter, in an Oscar-nominated performance) – are reminiscent of Stray Dog, but Skip McCoy leaves his own indelible mark in pickpocket lore through his unwavering insolence and uncanny ability to play each side against the others.
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Martin LaSalle as ‘Michel’ in Pickpocket (1959)
Of course this movie’s on the list. Look at the title. When the movie’s called Pickpocket, the pickpocket in the movie had better bring his A-game. And while some question French director Robert Bresson’s choice of Uruguayan non-actor Martin LaSalle in the lead role, the film remains a hauntingly memorable and magnificent portrait of a petty thief who becomes a master pickpocket in order to survive following the death of his mother and despite his friend’s attempts to help him out.
James Coburn as ‘Harry’ in Harry In Your Pocket (1973)
Harry In Your Pocket does for pickpockets what The Sting does for con artists. The two films even came out in the same year. A highly accurate depiction of the world of the pickpocket, the movie stars James Coburn as Harry, a “cannon” – that’s a professional pickpocket – with an aging, cocaine-addled partner who takes on a bumbling, would-be criminal as an apprentice and teaches him how pickpockets work in teams. Short of a documentary, Harry In Your Pocket is the most realistic depiction of a pickpocket found on film.
Mel Gibson as ‘Porter’ in Payback (1999)
Looking back on his career, it’s easy to compare Mel Gibson to the biblical character of Sampson. As soon as he cut off his luxurious mullet, he lost his powers. But there’s a flaw to this logic: Payback.
Maybe it’s because Mel had just recently shaved off his spectacular sho-lo and still had some semblance of cool coursing through his veins, but Payback is a badass movie and Mel plays one hell of a badass thief. Left for dead at the start of the film, it takes him a mere minute-long montage to get back on his feet, thanks to some sticky fingers and a thirst for revenge. From there it’s the usual for Mad Mel: He swindles, shoots, explodes and outsmarts an ex-wife, an ex-partner, corrupt cops and an incredibly kinky Lucy Liu on his way to taking down the entire Outfit and recovering the money he had “rightfully” stolen first. Oh, and he gets the girl—the hooker with a heart of gold. Seriously.
Matt Damon as ‘Linus Caldwell’ in Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
The original Ocean’s Eleven was so bad Sammy Davis, Jr. wouldn’t watch it with his glass eye. The Steven Soderbergh remake wasn’t much better, but the only person not to see it was Sammy Davis, Jr., and that’s because he was already dead. Apparently, it’s impossible to say no to movies filled with so many of Hollywood’s hottest, sexiest stars.
Ocean’s Eleven was the first time Matt Damon looked around and realized he wasn’t the most dreamy dude in the room (it happened again in the sequels). Flanked by Clooney and Pitt, Jason Bourne is the Screech of the bunch. But he’s still one of the three main characters in a blockbuster movie about thieves robbing a Las Vegas casino, and when he’s first introduced, he’s on a crowded train picking a man’s pocket. Again with the pickpockets and trains.
Cameron Diaz as ‘Jenny Everdeane’ in Gangs of New York (2002)
Cameron Diaz is the only woman in 1863 New York with perfect teeth. As Jenny Everdeane in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, she is also Leonardo DiCaprio’s love interest, as well as a “bludget,” which is a female pickpocket, and a “turtledove,” which is a person who goes to the upper-class areas, gets dressed up as a maid, goes in the back door and robs the people blind. “It takes a lot of sand to be a turtledove.” It doesn’t take much to want to see Cameron Diaz in a sexy maid’s outfit.
Dan Berry staggered onto the comedy scene while drinking heavily and skipping class at New York University. The warped mind behind The Prison Kite and HBO’s upcoming project The Bid, Dan has served as a network staff writer and is co-author of the soon-to-be-released biopic Madoff Uncuffed, documenting disgraced financier Bernie Madoff’s first year behind bars. Be the first person to follow him on Twitter @RealDanBerry.