#197. The Bicycle Thief (1947)

Here again I’m fidgeting at the idea of trying to talk in a constructive or incisive or useful way about a masterpiece, same as I was with Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind and Stagecoach; but The Bicycle Thief (called Bicycle Thieves in the UK and on FilmStruck, where I saw it) stabbed me in such a way that I don’t wanna extend myself with research about its production or reception, or read any criticism, before taking at least one solid stab at writing my first impresssion, which is that it’s as good a movie as was ever made. 

It’s a simple story about a man (a husband and father) living in war-torn Italy, as eager for work as seemingly every other man  his age, who one day gets a chance to report for work putting up posters around the city. All he needs is his own personal bike to get from location to location.

Problem is, he just pawned his bike.

So he goes home, complaining and sulking and cursing, and his wife is the one who takes action. She collects all their linens, balls em up, takes his hand and walks him over to a warehouse where they pawn the whole lot, get a little cash, and manage to buy his bike back. He gets the job. Things are looking up.

Crisis averted.

And this is just the first ten minutes. The storytelling is lean and quick and brilliant. In just a few minutes we get a sense of place (all the men in town gathering to hear about job opportunities, desperate), we get a problem (lack of bicycle), we get a sense of our characters (a scrappy young couple with two small kids, the husband earning the money while the wife rules the home), and we get a solution (bicycle reclaimed). Director Vittorio de Sica’s economy with time is amazing. Every single scene moves the story forward. Character development happens in tandem with that forward march.

Then there’s the ingenuity of the title. We’ve already been through an ordeal in the first ten minutes. Now we know that this sense of security into which we’ve been lulled, with the family getting their bike back and deeming it a critical source of livelihood, is a false one. The title keeps us in suspense for the inevitable.

I’m excited to get into the 1950s because it seems like a decade in world history that I don’t hear much about. With the ’40s you’ve got the War, the ’30s you’ve got the Depression, the ’20s, apart from showcasing some of the roaring prosperity and manifesting some feelings about the end of WWI, was mostly about the birth and maturation of cinema as an art form. 

But I’m not sure what’ll define the ’50s — because the postwar angst seems to be manifesting at the tail end of the War’s own decade.

The one figure of the era who’s popped up a lot in my schoolwork, as well as on the fringes of my own personal reading, is Jean Paul Sartre, the French philosopher/playwrite/novelist who I think is regarded as like the godfather of existentialism — a school of thought on which I can’t riff too well, on account of it’s been a few years since I even just dabbled in what I was told were the formative texts — but I know that it’s something to do with the idea that, as Christopher Hitchens observes in his last little book Mortality, you do not have a body, you are a body. That the brute realities of the physical world are simple that: brute, and real. If I’m remembering correctly, stories that illustrate existential ideas tend to be pretty bleak. They emphasize the randomness of life and, in a surface appraisal, can seem fatalistic. 

And if, again, my memory can be trusted: existentialism is looked at as a product of WWI. Or that the War at least sparked a resurgence and refinement of the ideas.

I guess The Bicycle Thief is a manifestation of European existentialism in the way that film noir seems to be an American brand? I think it was made too early to be part of the French New Wave (and belongs to the wrong nation), but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that it’s part of a similar movement [Editor’s Note from the Future: this and Umberto D.,a brutally sad story about a man and his dog struggling through life in postwar Italy, definitely has to be related to this movie.]

Because yeah: when you look at Out of the Past, or Detour or Gilda or even milder noir like Mildred Pierce — these stories are very much about consequence. An action leads to a result, which becomes the catalyst for another person’s action, which creates a result — and so on. A complicated entanglement with different parties, different agendas, and finally a burst of violence. The stories don’t seek to make a statement; only, rather, to depict something. The way things are.

And holy sweet shit does The Bicycle Thief do a powerful job with that formula. I’m suddenly thinking that even Roberto Rosselinni’s two films on the List so far, Paisan and Open City, are cut from the same cloth as this one. They don’t try to make sense of things, because what good would that be? Who could ever find sense in such a horrible four years? Rosselinni’s movies are instead just simple stories about people in a distinct setting. Unlike film noir, though, these three examples of what might be a distinctly European brand of postwar existentialism still do champion certain things. Family, loyalty. Food. Work.

American film noir tends to edge more on the side of shrugging about the dark stuff. Kinda like Leonard Cohen’s tone in “Everybody Knows”. Or like in “The Law”, where he says, “Now the deal has been dirty / since dirty began. / I’m not askin for mercy, / not from the man.”

There’s something more tender and human here. Griefstruck but overshadowed, too, with an understanding that life must go on.

It’s so fucking brutal and brilliant and swift and artful. I absolutely love it. 

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