THE GOOD THIEf directed and written by Neil Jordan, based on the film Bob Le Flambeur, by Jean-Pierre Melville, produced by John Wells, Stephen Woolley and Seaton McLean, with Nick Nolte, Tchéky Karyo, Nino Kukhanidze and Emir Kusturica. 108 minutes. A Metropolitan Films/Alliance Atlantis production. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (April 5). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 74. Rating: NNNN
whatever problems nick nolte has had over the years with drink and drugs haven't kept him from being one of the most compellingly watchable actors in American movies. He's one of those rare actors who carry with them the weight of a grand and messy life, like a character in a Norman Mailer or James Jones novel.In Neil Jordan's The Good Thief, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Nolte's character comes loaded with problems. He's a heroin addict and a degenerate gambler who masterminds a grand heist of the Monte Carlo casino under the nose of the local police. It's a loose remake of Bob Le Flambeur, the classic 1955 French noir.
Speaking by phone from New York City, Nolte wonders if it's really a remake.
""Inspired by' is better," he says, his voice as usual sounding like a gravel truck at the bottom of a well. "The idea of the French film centred on the closeness between criminality and art, the risk and the consequences. The artist has to live in the prison of his paintings in the hope that one day he might sell."
He signed onto the project for the chance to spend extended time in the south of France and to work with writer-director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game).
"Sean (Penn) worked with him and gave me a high recommendation. I like writer-directors. They have a real good concept of what it takes to make a scene work. You often have to alter a scene to make it work, and if a writer's not used to that it can be a shock."
Nolte was working with Sam Shepard when Jordan called.
"I'd caught pneumonia from my mother when she was dying, and I'd torn up my leg and was in the Phoenix hospital. I was supposed to be in San Francisco to do The Late Henry Moss with Sam Shepard, so I called him and told him, "My mother just died and I don't know if I can walk'. He says, "Why are you telling me this? Let's just pretend none of this happened.'
"It was what I needed to hear, so I checked out of the hospital and went to San Francisco. Sam gave me a week off before I started rehearsal."
That's the perfect Nick Nolte story: emotional trauma, physical disaster and devotion to the exploration of his craft. To Borneo for the elemental Farewell To The King for John Milius one year, then off to Europe to play one of Henry James's Americans abroad in The Golden Bowl.
Then overshadowed by Robert De Niro while giving the best performance in Scorsese's Cape Fear. He's the only actor ever nominated for an Oscar while playing opposite Barbra Streisand. And just to cross people up, he's finished his first comic-book movie, Ang Lee's The Hulk.
His films may be good, bad or indifferent, but he's never relaxed into an easy groove or settled for the familiar.
"The enemy of filmmaking is time," he says. "You may have enough money, but you're still forced into a schedule that doesn't allow the piece to mature. I go back to Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), who writes the screenplay and directs and then wants to go beyond that. I said to Terry, "You're asking for divine inspiration,' and Terry said, "Of course,' so we'd never finish scenes. It forced the actors to come up with something surprising, and it gave Terry another week to look at the footage.
"We'd come back to a scene a week later, so the lighting never matched."
THE GOOD THIEF (Neil Jordan) Rating: NNNN
This is an unofficial remake of Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur, with Nick Nolte as the degenerate gambler who gets involved in a high-stakes plan to hit the Monte Carlo casino. Melville's film was set in an imaginary grey-dawned Paris of empty streets and romantic tough guys. Neil Jordan's is a rowdier film in a more confused locale, the polyglot south of France, with its Arab influences and spectacular landscapes, and Nolte is an altogethr different style of tough guy. A clever, twisting plot highlights the tremendous rapport between Nolte and Tchéky Karyo (La Femme Nikita) as the cop in continual pursuit.