Classical Hollywood Elements

Despite its flawed hero and depressing plot, The Bicycle Thief, from start to finish, is a dramatically powerful, highly entertaining, and utterly compelling film. This is owing, in large part, to De Sica's synthesis of neorealist style and content with the style and content of the classical Hollywood film. The Bicycle Thief most strikingly resembles Hollywood films in the device used to set the plot in motion: the main character's lack. As I pointed out in chapter 4, in most classical film plots the central character lacks something vital which he or she must overcome obstacles to obtain. According to Alfred Hitchcock, this object of desire (which he refers to as the MacGuffin)9 could be anything, as long as it provides a goal that sets off an intense quest, a pretext for the action of the plot. The spectator derives pleasure, Hitchcock believes, not from the importance of what is sought, but from watching the quest.

In The Bicycle Thief, De Sica gives us the classical Hollywood pleasure of identifying with a character in a quest to recover something he has lost, but in this film the lost object in and of itself is supremely important, and not just a device to set the plot in motion. Although the policeman in charge of Ricci's case dismisses his loss as "just a bicycle," the comment is heavily ironic in the context the film establishes: Ricci needs the bicycle to be able to work and feed his family. De Sica suggests that even more is at stake than unemployment and hunger by giving the lost bicycle the brand name "Fides," which in Italian means "faith." Unemployment threatens Ricci not only with physical hunger but with a terrible spiritual despair. This despair is hinted at, as we noted above, in Ricci's suicidal remarks to his wife when he fears he will not be able to take the job. Once his bicycle is redeemed, so is Ricci. He becomes happy and hopeful, sexually playful with his wife, and at last a proud model for his son. Thus the loss of the bicycle means much more than the loss of material security. It also means the loss of Ricci's pride and hope for a better life, the loss of his manhood, and ultimately the loss of a reason to live. The film demonstrates how material well-being is a prerequisite for spiritual well-being. The loss of "Fides" thus means both literally and figuratively the loss of Ricci's "faith"—in himself and in his future. By raising the stakes of finding the bicycle so high, De Sica heightens the viewer's involvement in and anxiety about the outcome of Ricci's quest, making the experience of watching The Bicycle Thief far more compelling (and, yes, entertaining) than most conventional Hollywood films.

Our emotional involvement in the action is further intensified by the use of another feature common to classical films: the deadline. Whatever the task the protagonist needs to accomplish, it must be accomplished soon—or else. Thus, Ricci's friend at the political party headquarters tells him he must find the bicycle immediately because stolen bikes are quickly disassembled and sold in parts. Late in the film, when Ricci's desperation is so great that he stoops to seeking help from a psychic, the psychic intones: "You will find it now or not at all." In other words, he has a deadline.

Although the story of a weak, passive common man who loses something he desperately needs might seem unremittingly grim, this is not the case. The film remains compelling to watch because of the way the script of The Bicycle Thief balances moments of hope that the bike will be easily retrieved with moments of despair that the search is futile. When the bicycle is first taken, there is a moment of hope when a man appears saying "I saw him. He went this way." Ricci jumps into a car whose driver obligingly pursues the man indicated. After an exciting chase, when the car catches up with the man, he turns out not to be the thief. Ricci's despair is increased because he has lost valuable time on a wild-goose chase. (In subsequent viewings of the film, it becomes clear that a ring of thieves is involved in stealing Ricci's bike. The supposedly helpful man, one of them, has deliberately led Ricci astray.)

At the marketplace Ricci visits the next day to seek his lost bicycle, the camera tracks past row after row of bicycles and bicycle parts, giving Ricci's search a needle-in-a-haystack feeling of futility, vividly conveying his despair that he will never find it. But suddenly he comes upon a man painting the frame of a "Fides." The hope that the bicycle is Ricci's is drawn out when the man refuses to reveal the bicycle's serial number, as if he has something to hide. When a policeman finally forces him to reveal the serial number, despair returns because the number does not match the one on Ricci's bike. Despair continues when a downpour prevents Ricci from looking for his bike at another market, but hope returns when, in an extraordinary stroke of good luck, Ricci recognizes the thief (whom he had seen stealing his bike) talking to an old man. The thief rides away on the stolen bicycle (despair), but Ricci and Bruno follow the old man into a church, intending to persuade him to lead them to the thief (hope). The man manages to elude them (despair), but Ricci, through another coincidence, later encounters the thief again and follows him to his neighborhood (hope). A policeman is summoned to search the boy's home (hope), but the policeman finds nothing (despair). Ricci is threatened by the boy's mother for accusing her son and he is also mocked and physically threatened by the thief's neighbors (despair). The carefully modulated alternation between hope and despair keeps the film forever fresh and fascinating to watch. Even though I have seen the film countless times, with each viewing I keep hoping—in the irrational way we do at the movies—that this time Ricci will apprehend the thief right away, that this time the painted Fides will have the right serial number, or that this time the policeman will find the bicycle in the thief's room. Something will go right for a change and Ricci will get his bicycle back.

The Bicycle Thief departs from conventional mainstream cinema in its use of grainy black-and-white film stock, location shooting, and use of nonprofessional actors—all the conventions that give the film the patina of documentary realism. However, these very reality effects actually work to increase another major pleasure we get from classical films, the illusion that we are not at the movies but looking into a real world,

Narrative Elements Film
Figure 29. The camera moves back to reveal that we have been viewing this intimate morning scene literally through an open window. (The Bicycle Thief, 1948, Richard Feiner & Company.)

as if through an open window. So seemingly real is The Bicycle Thief that after seeing it, most studio-made films seem phony or fake in comparison. De Sica playfully comments on the window-on-the-world illusion he creates in his film in a sequence in which Ricci and Bruno prepare to set off to work on the first day of Ricci's new job. Right before they leave the house, Bruno walks toward the camera to close the shutters on the window. As he moves forward, the camera pulls back and out the window to reveal that we have indeed been viewing this intimate morning scene literally through an open window. (See figure 29.)

The Bicycle Thief also adheres to the Hollywood conventions of filmmaking in its use of invisible editing. The shots in The Bicycle Thief are for the most part edited together smoothly by match cuts and conventional editing devices such as point-of-view shots, shot/reverse shots, and crosscutting. As a result, the narrative flows so smoothly that the events in the film do not seem to be narrated. They seem just to happen. A close examination of the final sequence of The Bicycle Thief, however, illustrates the complex moral and psychological effects De Sica achieves through the artful synthesis of realist images with a classical editing style.

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Responses

  • hiwet
    How does the bicycle thieves depart from hollywood conventions in terms of storyline (narrative)?
    6 months ago
  • Jody
    How is bicycle thieves different from conventional films?
    6 months ago

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