Pity poor Nick Nolte. His talent is regularly eclipsed by alleged forays into some sort of substance abuse. Now he'll be forever haunted by evidence of a bad-hair day in the mug shot taken a few months ago during a bust for driving under the influence. It's a familiar Hollywood curse. Yet the actor conquers -- or perhaps channels -- his demons to deliver a riveting performance in The Good Thief, a film that opened last week in major cities outside Vermont.
Take a peek when it eventually arrives here in theaters or video stores. Written and directed by Neil Jordan, the movie is based on a 1955 Jean-Pierre Melville classic titled Bob le Flambeur. This black-and-white cousin to the French Nouvelle Vague of the same era concerns an aging bank robber with a penchant for crime and a unique code of honor.
The full-color update features Nolte as a similarly decrepit gambler and con man plagued by a nasty heroin habit. He's a walking Tom Waits song, but the soundtrack begins with music that seems Middle Eastern or African in a score by composer Elliot Goldenthal, who just won an Oscar for Frida. Intermittent Leonard Cohen vocals give the project a mournful McCabe and Mrs. Miller feel, although this is ultimately a less tragic tale.
The cinematography, by the great Chris Menges, suggests a multicultural Nice that isn't always so nice. The city encompasses numerous contradictions: high and low life, breathtaking vistas and decadence, vast wealth and desperation. These are perfect contrasts for Jordan, who has explored the consequences of intense yearning in previous work such as Mona Lisa and The Crying Game.
Nolte's raspy voice and deeply lined face somehow lend the 21st-century Bob a charisma that's way beyond any notion of glamour. He walks a tightrope with unexpected grace for a man who has already hit bottom.
After shooting up in the bathroom of a strip joint, Bob manages to save a 17-year-old Bosnian girl from enforced prostitution by fighting with a pimp to retrieve her passport. Played by Nutsa Kukhianidze, Anne becomes enamoured of him, but we're led to believe she may have ulterior motives. Plus, there's almost a five-decade gap between them. Bob steers clear of romantic entanglement until she turns 18 later in the narrative. The relationship is hardly age-appropriate, but at least it's not precisely pedophilia.
Bob has two more immediate dilemmas: cops and money. His every move looks suspicious to a world-weary detective (Tcheky Karyo). These men circle each other with clever repartee, but the good thief is always a few steps ahead -- 12 of them at one point, when he evades his police tail by ducking in and out of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
In this movie, the truth is always elusive. When Bob sells his cherished Picasso to a shady art dealer (Ralph Fiennes), the exchange is accompanied by a tall tale about how the painting was won from Pablo himself in a 1969 bullfight bet. The provenance is questionable, of course, but the proceeds are used to finance an elaborate casino heist in Monte Carlo. Shades of Ocean's Eleven.
The robbery dream team in this case includes a technology expert portrayed with cigar-chomping perfection by Yugoslavian director-actor Emir Kustu-rica. Among the other accomplices: a transsexual weightlifter with debilitating arachnophobia and identical twins whose flim-flam skills outshine those of their fellow crooks.
Jordan positions all of these underworld associates so that the authorities and the audience are never quite sure about the true aim of the complex caper. Several switcheroos keep everyone off-kilter, until a surprise conclusion that would be far more satisfying if that reprobate senior citizen Nick Nolte didn't get the teenage girl.
-You may have seen New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon on CNN as an embedded journalist reporting from Iraq. He and the cable news network are also behind a 40-minute documentary, Deadlock: Russia's Forgotten War, that will screen in Burlington on Saturday, April 19.
The event -- co-sponsored by the Vermont International Film Foundation, UVM's Center for World Education and Social Services, and Amnesty Interna-tional USA -- shows at 1 p.m. in the Waterman Building. Two human rights activists, Eliza Mouseeva and Bela Tsugaeva, will be on hand to answer questions about the bloody history of Chechnya.
An examination of this decade-long conflict in Russia's breakaway republic should make for a compelling afternoon -- if you can tear yourself away from the Battle of Baghdad on CNN.