For decades a certain neorealist classic was known as Vittorio DeSica‘s The Bicycle Thief. But then eight years ago the Criterion guys came along and used the unfortunate original Italian title — Bicycle Thieves (i.e., Ladri di biciclette) — when they released their remastered DVD. They’ll be sticking with this, of course, when the Criterion Bluray pops in late March 2016. When the film opened in the U.S. in late 1949, the U.S. distributor Mayer-Burstyn (co-run by Arthur Mayer and Joseph Burtsyn) went with the more elegant singular title, and that stuck for nearly 70 years until Criterion came along and literalized all to hell.
The Bicycle Thief is the title of a poem. Bicycle Thieves is a phrase in a police report (i.e., rapporto della polizia).
DeSica’s post-war drama is about a poor, struggling husband-father (Lamberto Maggiorani) who becomes desperate when a bicycle he needs for a new job has been stolen. His young son is played by Enzo Staiola. Most of the film is about Maggiorani’s unsuccessful attempt to find the stolen vehicle. It climaxes when, at wit’s end and desperate to hold onto his job, he steals someone else’s bike, and is quickly seized by authorities. Thus (and be warned, what follows is one of the most groan-worthy observations ever made by a reputable film critic in world history) the alternative U.S. title is “misleading”, in the view of The Observer‘s Philip French, because “the desperate hero eventually becomes himself a bicycle thief.”
Good God, man! The singular title is far more intriguing because it allows the viewer to decide if it refers to thief #1 or thief #2. (The presumption during the first 90% is that the title refers to the former; the heartbreaking finale suggests the latter.). By not being precise it suggests that the term “bicycle thief” may refer to anyone who is poor and hungry and driven to criminality out of desperation — it universalizes the singular. And the use of the plural “thieves,” of course, tells the first-time viewer to expect a second felony to punctuate the story sooner or later, thereby diluting the effect when it happens.
Criterion having embraced Bicycle Thieves means that henceforth culturally attuned people will be on the fence about this title — should I use the plural or the old-fashioned singular? In my book what Criterion has done is plain and simple mischief, and to hell with the fact that DeSica and his producers went with the plural back in ’48. They meant well but they made a tedious call. The elegant singular title was fine and ratified in the States (Robert Altman‘s The Player refers to The Bicycle Thief three or four times) until Criterion came along and fucked everything up. Demerit.