The plot concerns a young, unemployed writer who takes to following random strangers through the streets of London, ostensibly seeking inspiration for stories. He sets rules to keep this low-level stalking from going too far, but quickly breaks these rules upon discovering that his latest subject is a burglar. The burglar, one Mr. Cobb, confronts the writer; recognizing him as an impressionable soul, Cobb suggests the writer accompany him on his next break-in.
Cobb is rather philosophical about his profession: he doesn't burglarize for the money, but for the thrill of invading others' privacy and the intellectual interest of learning about the lives of complete strangers from their possessions. He justifies his thefts and petty vandalism by stating that this forces his victims to reevaluate their own lives. The writer tries to remain an aloof observer, but Cobb's voyeurism draws him in—into a relationship with a blonde model (one of Cobb's victims), a blackmail plot, and a very nasty triple-cross.
Now has a character sheet in need of expansion.
"Why would you want to fuck up their example list?"
"You take it away, to show them what they had."
"They probably just misplaced the examples..."
- Anachronic Order: Used to keep the audience in the dark about the blonde's and Cobb's real motivations, just like the writer was. The bulk of the film is a flashback related by the writer to a police detective. Within that flashback, three streams (originating at the beginning, the one-third point, and the two-thirds point of the story) run concurrently.
- An Insert
- Anti-Hero: The Young Man / The Writer is an impressionable loser who quickly gets hooked into dubious hijinks.
- Back Blocking: The final shot is Cobb standing in a crowded street. Someone walks in front of the camera, and once they pass by, Cobb is gone without a trace.
- The Bad Guy Wins: Cobb is revealed to be working for the Bald Guy, and he murders the blonde with the same hammer the Writer used during the burglary of the Bald Guy, due to the Blonde blackmailing the Bald Guy with evidence to the murder that he committed in her flat. The Writer is held responsible for all of Cobb's crimes, and Cobb goes free, without a trace.
- Batman Gambit : If one considers that a few minor details could've made the whole thing fall apart.
- Beardness Protection Program: At Cobb's suggestion, the writer shaves his beard and changes his whole appearance to avoid being recognized by a witness.
- Black-and-Grey Morality
- Blackmail: But not by the person you think is pulling it.
- Break-In Threat: Sometimes Cobb doesn't take anything, but just goes through keepsakes and makes sure the people there know it, in order to disrupt their lives.
- Chekhov's Gun: The pearl earring that Cobb hid, the credit card that belonged to D. Lloyd, the hammer used during the theft of the Bald Guy and the murder of the Blonde, the pairs of the Blonde's underwear, and the passport photos of the Blonde are all used as evidence against Cobb, or rather, the Writer.
- Covert Pervert: During their theft of the blonde's apartment, Cobb and the writer steal some of her underwear.
- Criminal Doppelgänger: Cobb's plan was to turn the Writer into one for himself, deliberately grooming him to be his fall guy for the police to arrest. He deliberately planted evidence to falsely implicate him and even surreptitiously convinced the Writer to start dressing and acting like him.
- Deliberately Monochrome: For at least two reasons, both related to the tiny budget:
- Black and white film was cheaper.
- Filming in black and white meant that Nolan didn't have to spend time and money matching the colour palette in different scenes.
- Drop the Hammer: Several characters are strong believers in the use of ordinary hardware hammers as weapons of self-defense, torture, or murder.
- Evil Plan: Stalking for story inspiration doesn't sound evil but it does get the plot in motion and lead to the other plans.
- Fall Guy: Ultimately, the plot boils down to a very elaborate scheme to set up a semi-innocent man to take the fall for a crime that has not yet been committed.
- Femme Fatale: The blonde.
- Film Noir
- Five-Second Foreshadowing: Cobb putting rubber gloves on and wiping his prints from the glass that the Blonde gave to him, are signs that something very bad is going to happen, and it immediately does.
- Foreshadowing: The fate of the man that owed the Bald Guy some money foreshadows the nearly same fate of the Blonde.
- Gentleman Thief: Cobb, who is cultured and refined and breaks into people's apartments just for kicks.
- House Squatting: Features this as part of the big Twist Ending. The apartment that the burglar Cobb claims as his own, isn't—he's just squatting there while the real owner is on holiday. (When not at that apartment, he uses a condemned apartment complex, or stays at his girlfriend's place.) Not keeping any permanent residence of his own is just part of Cobb's long-term strategy to leave no trace of his existence.
- Inadvertent Entrance Cue: Cobb tells the young man about the pleasure of breaking into apartments and entering the lives of "people you'll never meet." This is instantly followed by the sound of the person who lives in that apartment opening the door.
- Interrogation Flashback: The bulk of the film is the writer explaining his story to a police detective. It's soon revealed that he went to the police of his own accord. He made some very unsavory friends and got in over his head, so now he's coming clean before the situation can get any worse.
- Karma Houdini: Cobb kills the Blonde and frames the Writer for it. The last we see of Cobb is him standing in a crowd of people as he looks around as if checking if he's been followed, and then... he's gone.
- Most Writers Are Writers: Protagonist is a struggling, unemployed young writer.
- Not-So-Abandoned Building: The burglar Cobb has a few hideouts in abandoned buildings where he stashes stolen goods before fencing them. He notes that London is full of spaces like these, waiting to be used.
- Nameless Narrative: The characters' names are not revealed, except for Cobb, and that may or may not be a pseudonym; the writer alternately gives his name as Bill or Daniel, but he's just listed in the credits as "the young man".
- One-Book Author: Most of the cast were just friends of Nolan's who had day jobs. Cobb is actor Alex Haw's one and only film credit, though he gives a good performance. This is also Jeremy Theobald's only major screen role, though he worked with Nolan previously on the short film Doodlebug, and would return to cameo in a later film 22 years after this one. He has a regular job in the field of health.
- Panty Thief: Cobb steals a couple of pairs of panties from the Blonde's room. He acts like he's just messing with her head, but it's actually part of the frame-up.
- Pre-emptive Declaration: Cobb admires the writer's suit and then says "Pity about the bloodstains on it." The Writer barely has time to blink at this before Cobb attacks him.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Delivered by the blonde to the writer, as she tells him that he's a loser who was easy to manipulate.
- The writer has a Batman logo prominently displayed on his apartment door. (This was actor Jeremy Theobald's actual apartment, so it's unknown if he or Nolan put the logo there.)
- Among the posters featured in the Writer's flat are Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard, and Reservoir Dogs. One of the CDs that were removed from the blonde's box is the soundtrack for Trainspotting. Also in a few scenes, pictures of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance can clearly be seen on the Writer's wall.
- The Spook: Cobb. The police have no record of his existence, and he tricks his fall guy into dressing and looking just like him. The final shot of the film is Cobb stepping into a bustling street and completely disappearing.
- Stalker Without A Crush: The Writer just... follows people, for no particular reason.
- Stalker with a Crush: As far as the Blonde is concerned.
- Troll: Cobb. He steals one of the blonde's earrings and leaves the other behind just to screw with her
- Unwitting Pawn: The writer, and the blonde.
- What's an X Like You Doing in a Y Like This?: Subverted.The young man: So what's a nice girl like you-
The blonde: Doing in a place like this?
The young man: -doing with a bald old cunt like that?
- Wicked Cultured: Cobb is well-dressed, witty, urbane, and philosophical about the fact that he's a career burglar.Cobb: You take it away to show them what they had.