Louis Malle's "The Thief of Paris," now in revival at the Key, was not exactly ignored when it opened in New York in 1967, but it failed to catch on despite a respectable number of favorable reviews. Resurrected at the last Telluride Film Festival and successfully revived in Boston, the movie commands a certain respect and interest, but one can also understand why it didn't quite catch on.

There's some vital, defining essence missing in "Thief," a character study of a turn-of-century society burglar, Georges Randal, a cheated, disillusioned son of the bourgeoisie who turns to crime for revenge as well as profit. Jean-Paul Belmondo seems to be a deficient histrionic choice as Randal, at least if Malle's intention was to depict the formation of a damned, desolate soul, the impression left at the fadeout.

Belmondo certainly doesn't create the chilling effect that Al Pacino was to achieve a few years later in "The Godfathe," but Malle's viewpoint remains too tentative and ambiguous to accomodate adeqaute illumination. The digs at bourgeois corruption and hypocrisy, as exemplified in the uncle who robs Randal of his inheritance and tries to rob him of the girl he loves, and the hints of social discontent and rebellion, ultimately symbolized by Charles Denner as a fellow thief who espouses political terrorism, give the material a somewhat misleading "ideological" note.

It's conceivable that the film's success in revival was based on some exaggeration of these ideological points, which are inserted too glibly in the picture itself and tend to obscure the truly devastating irony of Randal's fate - his failure to escape his bouregois conditioning. The strongest moment in the film depicts Randal emulating the cruelty and dishonesty of his uncle, destroying the stricken, paralyzed old man's will and forging a new one as his victim glares helplessly from his sickbed.

The Randal we see trudging back to the train station at dawn in the closing scenes, weary from a long night of burglary and lugging two carpetbags filled with stolen goods, is surely intended to be a tragically deluded figure, ironically mirroring the values he resents.

Belmondo, surrounded by a talented and attractive company of actresses that probably seems more impressive now than 10 years ago - Genevieve Bujold, Marie Dubois, Francoise Fabian, Bernadette Lafint. Marlene Jobert and Martine Sarcey - seems more debonair than haunted. It may have been asking too much to suggest that he embody Randal's corruption. On the other hand, one can't be certain that Malle really asked; perhaps "Thief" falls short because he tried to finesse this revelation or never perceived it steadily and clearly enough from the start.