An Analysis of “The Gentleman Thief” Trope in Literature and Other Media

Written by: Matthew Wisnefsky

The gentleman/lady thief is a common trope in literature and other media, particularly within the genre of heist films. You’re probably familiar with this figure: a character, often a male, who is sharply dressed, has impeccable manners and gives  the impression of wealth, who then steals money or valuable objects. Some examples of notable “gentleman thieves” in the media are: Danny Ocean of the Ocean’s Trilogy, M. Hercule Flambeau from the Father Brown short stories and television series, and Arsene Lupin depicted in the Arsene Lupin novels, films, and television series. 

arsène lupin, gentleman-thief
“arsène lupin, gentleman-thief” by cdrummbks is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The French television series Lupin, the first part which premiered in early 2021, features the gentleman thief Assane Diop. Diop is inspired by the character of Arsene Lupin, and holds many of the same character traits of gentleman thieves of the past. He steals and commits crimes to both avenge his father and to save his son, through taking jewels from the corrupt Pellegrini family. Additionally, he is also a master of disguise similar to Arsene Lupin. 

A significant trait gentleman thieves tend to have in common is how they all have strict morals to their thievery. For example, Arsene Lupin makes it a point “never to steal from the same person twice. ” Additionally gentleman thieves tend to steal from corrupt individuals or institutions. In the case of Danny Ocean it was wealthy casino magnates, while with Flambeau and Lupin it was the Catholic Church and the Crown. In a notable difference from their adversaries, gentleman thieves never resort to murder and especially as in Ocean’s Thirteen they even can be willing to allow the corrupt individuals they intend to steal from a chance to “make things right” before they actually steal from them. However, these characters typically play more of an anti-hero role than a “Robin Hood” one, as they do not necessarily have altruistic intentions with what they are taking. They steal for themselves or for others, often for the thrill of the theft, but importantly they are depicted as less corrupt as those whom they are thieving from. Arsene Lupin is rather unique as a gentleman thief, as he does redistribute the wealth that he steals from the rich. Additionally, the gentleman thief is also a master of disguise, the thieves often have notoriety and an antagonistic relationship with the police, and disguise is necessary to gain access to what they want to steal. For example, Lupin has masks that he wears, and Flambeau has tried to pass himself off as a priest or oil salesman in order to gain access to the relics he wants to steal. Danny Ocean does not normally use disguise as part of his thievery, however almost all of his accomplices do. One of the main critiques of the gentleman thief trope is that a lot of the characters do seem to be disproportionately white, and creating a black gentleman thief in Assane Diop is an important and necessary update on this classic trope. 

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