Michel (Martin LaSalle in his film debut) is a pickpocket in Paris. Wanting money, but disinclined to do anything as troublesome as getting a job, he lifts some cash from the purse of a woman at the racetrack. He's arrested by the cops, but since they can't prove that the money in his pocket is the money from the lady's purse, they let him go.
Michel cannot see any reason why he shouldn't be a thief, if he is clever enough to steal money from lesser people and not get caught. He makes the acquaintance of an experienced pickpocket who teaches him some tricks of the trade.
Meanwhile, Michel gets messages from his mother, who is ill and wants him to come visit her. He refuses to do so, even when Jeanne (Marika Green), a pretty young woman who lives in the room next to Michel's mom, begs him to.
- Answer Cut: Michel finally makes it to his mother's bedside, as she's dying. When she tells him this he says she'll get better, "I'm sure of it!" Cut to Michel and Jeanne at his mother's funeral.
- Bittersweet Ending: Michel finally gets busted, trying to pick the pocket of an undercover cop at the racetrack. But after Jeanne comes to visit him in jail, he finally realizes that he is in love with her, and there's hope for his future.
- Book Ends: In the opening scene Michel picks a woman's purse at the racetrack, is arrested, but gets away with it. Near the end, he goes pickpocketing at the racetrack, is arrested, and goes to jail.
- Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Averted, Michel steals money from his mother and rarely visits her.
- Character Narrator: Michel narrates his own story.
- Five-Finger Discount: Michel does this for a living.
- In Medias Res: The film does not waste any time considering how Michel came to a life of crime; instead we start right off the bat with Michel lifting the cash from a woman's purse at the racetrack.
- Inspector Javert: The nameless Chief Inspector. He clearly suspects Michel (who doesn't help his case by espousing his ‹bermensch ideology, see below) and sends men to investigate his unlocked apartment, but has no definitive proof to convict him.
- Lonely Bachelor Pad: Despite his lofty aspirations, Michel lives in a tiny, dirty apartment with a broken lock. Luckily, his only worldly possessions besides his stolen goods are mountains of books and his battered suit.
- Love Redeems: After Michel is arrested, Jeanne regularly visits him. During one of these visits, Michel realizes he is in love with her.
- Time Skip: When he realizes that the police are close to catching him Michel leaves the country for two years.
- Training Montage: Michel makes the acquaintance of a fellow hoodlum, who teaches him some tricks about how to lift wallets, how to use your fingers, how to pull a wallet out of a coat pocket with one hand and drop it into your other hand below. Michel even exercises his fingers to become more dexterous.
- True Companions: Averted. Michel has friends, namely Jacques and Jeanne, but we see no evidence of them truly enjoying time together when they hang out. They all separate for two years after Michel leaves the country, meanwhile Jacques leaves Jeanne to look after their child. Michel's "friendship" with his band of fellow thieves is even more impersonal, as we never learn their names or see how Michel gained their trust.
- ‹bermensch: Michel believes that some people are superior to others, and thus have a right to steal.
- Villain Protagonist: A pickpocket, and a rather selfish and arrogant one at that.