Monday, February 12, 2007

"The Bicycle Thief" or "Bicycle Thieves?"

NOTE: I'm sure this subject has been debated many times before (and will be again), but it has only recently come to the forefront of my mind and I feel compelled to discuss it now. Be aware, those who have not yet seen the film, that there are spoilers ahead.

I'm not entirely certain when I decided that I was going to refer to Vittoria De Sica's 1948 neorealist classic Ladri di Biciclelle as simply The Bicycle Thief or even if it was an entirely conscious decision. That was, after all, the title by which I first knew the film (I believe that's how they refer to it in Robert Altman's The Player, which I saw before De Sica's film). Occasionally I would hear it referred to as Bicycle Thieves and even, sometimes, as THE Bicycle Thieves, but I paid no attention to that. I knew what film they were talking about but I still preferred the singular title to the plural one. The Bicycle Thief just sounded better to me.

Recently, though, I found myself wondering about the film's "real" title. As someone who has had his own name ("Damian") spelled and pronouned wrongly more times than I care to count, I decided to try and determine this for myself. I soon discovered that in England they translate it Bicycle Thieves while in the U.S. (where I live) it is translated The Bicycle Thief. So, which one is "correct" translation? Well, according to Wikipedia:

The original Italian title of the film is literally translated into English as Bicycle Thieves, however the film has also been released in the US as The Bicycle Thief. According to critic Philip French of The Observer, this alternate title is misleading, "because the desperate hero eventually becomes himself a bicycle thief."

I then went to the IMDB where I found an entire thread on the film's board devoted to the subject. One poster wrote:

Most people may not care about the slight difference, but it really annoys me that the USA calls it "The Bicycle Thief" (singular). It's also a bit of a spoiler too. When I watched it for the 1st time (thinking the title was "The Bicycle Thief") I immediately knew that Mr. Ricci would end up stealing (or trying to steal) a bicycle. When the title is in the singular, you can assume that it refers to the protagonist (Mr. Ricci). So DUH you know what's going to happen, and furthermore you can guess that the whole movie is about the desperation that leads to his crimal act.

With the title "Bicycle Theives" (plural), it refers to more of a generic concept, and so we're not sure how it applies to the protagonist. Perhaps he's going to confront a criminal ring of bicycle theives in order to reclaim his property. It's much more ambiguous, and so the ending comes much more as a powerful shock. Gawd, I can't believe the idiots who indiscriminately changed the title without realizing what an effect a simple pluralization can cause. Spoiling a movie without warning should be a hanging offence.

This individual brings up some very interesting points, but it is a little disheartening to me because, despite all the arguments to the contrary, I still prefer the singular version of the title. However, another poster responded with:

I totally disagree. The plural version gives it away.

When the movie was simply called the "Bicycle Thief" you could assume it to be a reference to the man who originally stole the bike. It would be appropriate as a title even if he is a minor character, because that minor character's actions result in causing everything else that happens to happen. Without that singular thief at the beginning Ricci would never do what he did, so I don't see why the singular title would make you assume that the protagonist must be the thief referred to in the title.

By pluralizing it it is easier to figure out that the protagonist will end up doing the same thing, since there needs to be another thief.

I also sort of like it being singular because... and this is hard for me to put into words... by making it singular, and then having Ricci also take a bike it kind of shows that the original person we thought of as a "bad guy" and the person that we think of as the "good guy" will do the same thing for whatever reason they may have... in the end, they are one and the same.

Again, I am personally more sympathetic to this second poster's sentiments, though I realize my position is on somewhat "shaky" ground as the literal translation, apparently, suggests the plural. I also can't help but wonder if my preferrence toward the second poster's arguments stem from the fact that I am already predisposed toward the singular title.

This started me wondering what any given film's "real" and/or "official" title actually is. As most of us know, a movie can often go through several title changes in the process of its writing, pre-production, production, pos-production and distribution. Is it the title that all of the filmmakers can agree on? What if they don't all agree? To whom do I then give authority? The writer? The director? The producer? The studio? The distributors?

It is also very often the case that a movie (when released in foreign countries) will not only have its title translated into another language but actually completely changed (sometimes into what are arguably "better" titles). We've all heard I'm sure about the famous "Harry Potter Philosopher's/Sorcere's Stone" fiasco, but there are plenty others. In France, for example, Wedding Crashers became "Boys Without Honor," Sideways became "In Drift" and Lost in Translation became, quite ironically, "Unfaithful Translation."

If, as Andy Horbal says, naming things is indeed "a sacred act," then ought I not take as much care as possible in getting "right" the name of any given movie? I mean, if I really wanted to be as accurate as possible, I could call the film by its original Italian title Ladri di Biciclette (just as I know several people who refer to Roberto Benigni's 1997 film as "La Vita e bella" though I still call it "Life is Beautiful"). I guess I'd rather call it that than Bicycle Thieves, but I'd still rather call it The Bicycle Thief than either of those.

There is also part of me that feels like it doesn't really matter what it is called. As Shakespeare famously asked, "What's in a name?" After all, that which we call Bicycle Thief by any other name is still a great movie, right?


Dan E. said...

I also was recently wondering about this, prompted by Criterion's decision to give the film the plural title. I am inclined to agree with you. I prefer the singular title, and I think it is because the singular title seems more striking. If you say it out loud, The Bicycle Thief sounds more like The Godfather or The Conformist as a great film than Bicycle Thieves.

Also, after just saying the two titles aloud, I prefer The Bicycle Thief because of the hard "f" sound at the end. The singular title has a more rythmic beat to it, making it easier to discuss in conversation. I know that's a shallow reason for preferring a title, but it is just another in a list.

I agree with the second poster you mentioned. The singular title leaves the viewer what will happen when the hero finally catches the bicycle thief. But in reality, it is the hero who ends up the bicycle thief. The unification between the evil man and good man is more solid in the singular title.

Damian Arlyn said...

Those are all good points and I am inclined to agree with you.

Something else that just occurred to me as I was reading your comment was that "The Bicycle Thief" (even in spite of its article "the") feels more universal, more like an idea/concept whereas the plural "Bicycle Thieves" feels, to me at least, very specific. It is referring to a particular group of people ("those bicycle thieves over there"). It seems to me that "The Bicycle Thief" could be referring to any bicycle thief and the fact that, as you pointed out, anyone can become a bicycle thief.

Rob said...

It's "Bicycle Thieves"!

Damian Arlyn said...

Just "Bicycle Thieves" or "THE Bicycle Thieves?"

Anonymous said...
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Diana said...

We can settle this with a lesson in italian grammar.

In italian, words that end with "i" or "e" indicate plurality. Same goes for plural articles. If I was talking about the thief, I would say "il ladro." If I wanted to indicate the thieves, I would say "i ladri."

If the title were Ladro di Bicicletta, then we'd call it Bicycle Thief.

If the original title were I Ladri di Biciclette, then it would be correct to translate this as The Bicycle Thieves.

But the title is Ladri di Biciclette: Bicycle Thieves, or literally, Thieves of Bicycles.

Analyze that!

Adi said...
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hanly said...
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Unknown said...

That is an even better title!

Unknown said...

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