Pickpocket: Sound Design & Editing

Sound design and editing are two often overlooked aspects of film, at least for the average Joe who just wants to watch the next Avengers movie. Some films really get it right while other’s become snooze feasts. It’s the difference between crying like a baby at a powerful scene because the string ensemble rose to the grandest of heights to deliver a sound straight from heaven, a sound so inspired that every other noise in that moment seems wholly inconsequential to the pure adoration one can feel in a single solitary moment, and leaving the theater uninspired because the music in the film never rested, it was just always at it’s peak. Dynamics are essential, as the art of silence is becoming buried in our overpopulated society, but even in the darkest of times, an editor will throw in a little fade to white to shake it up. Emotional storytelling doesn’t just lie in the directors and actors’ hands, for it comes in the form of dialogue, music, sound, editing, and the build-up and release of tension. Pickpocket uses sound and editing to enhance and create the story. 

Pickpocket opens with an intriguing question, the question of “should I?”, so the sound design follows suit. Loud, constantly changing rhythms rise above the noise of the public because of the inconsistent repetition. It beats twice, then three times, then once, then twice. They were all seemingly unorthodox. Trying to find the consistency in the sounds leads to an uneasy feeling, the same feeling Michel is reflecting onto the audience. The protagonist is anxious deciding whether or not to pickpocket, so is the sound.

This initial scene is a great staple of what’s to come. It gradually builds tension masterfully by using long, still, close-up shots. Very few cuts were used, for the actions of the characters held the audience’s attention naturally. The essential information is the only thing showed on screen. If it is of Michel contemplating, the framing shows nothing besides him. When his hand progresses to the purse, that action is the only thing in frame. The center of focus being the most important subject in a shot is carried on through-out the film. 

The long drawn out moments accurately reflect how man’s decision-making process works. The major implications of the consequences and rewards plague man to over-think. This is emphasized in his hesitation, and the hesitation of the camera to switch to another angle. In addition, rather than having the main character speak in situations where he ordinarily wouldn’t so the audience understands what he’s thinking, he speaks as a narrator inside his mind. His words come directly from what he’s thinking instead of what he’s saying, because clearly, he’s not saying anything. It’s a sufficient use of sound to tell the story in a unique way and pairs up with the art of editing to connect the audience to the protagonist. Rather than having an omnipresent narrator or a man who talks to himself, his dialogue plays out as a man thinking. The words are one-part conscience and the other thoughts. He takes the words right out of the audience’s mouth. 

The sound design also offers context as to where they are. As he successfully steals money from the lady in front of him, the sound of horses trotting by is ushered in. Without even seeing them, the audience knows that they are watching a horse race. As the film progresses, the audience gets to know more about Michel. Much of the knowledge garnered throughout the film comes from the sounds of his surroundings. His poverty is apparent by the skin-curling sound of his creaky floorboards. Besides his home looking absolutely atrocious, the sounds are subconsciously picked up by the audience to conclude that he’s clearly not living lavishly. Whenever he’s out of his apartment, for example the bank, the sounds are dictated by the pitter-patter of pricey shoes on nice floors. This shows how sound guides the atmosphere.

A pivotal moment in Pickpocket comes in the form of a montage. It acts to show that a character, in this case Michel, has gone through some change. Whether it be physical, mental, or emotional, the montage operates to show that time has passed, and he has evolved. It follows him learning some bar tricks from his new friend. I can imagine that this was among the first attempts at a montage. The rapid fading in and out of different hand placement strategies and finger dexterity exercises show the elapsed time and the string ensemble singing euphorically in the background enforces that it was a learning experience. It tells the audience that Michel has now matured, and in the long run it inevitably inspires the art of editing in other films, such as the iconic Rocky training montages. It’s reminiscent of most scenes in action movies where the student becomes the master. The music “supplies a unifying structure for the montage,” (Prince 191).

About halfway through the film I started getting an inkling that this story was being told from his perspective after he was caught. The more past tense he used, the more it felt like the story he was telling the cops of his journey pickpocketing. I was very reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, but I’m disappointed there wasn’t a payoff as great. I was right that he did get caught, but the conclusion wasn’t as genius. It was left to the audience’s imagination as to who he was talking to throughout the entirety of this film. It may have all just been him writing in the end. The beauty is in it’s mystery. Pickpocket was a remarkably innovative film.


Prince, S. (2012). Movies and Meaning: An introduction to film. Harlow, Essex: Pearson.