Hepcats and Hustlers: “Once a Thief”

Once a Thief (1965, Dir. Ralph Nelson): 

The opening of Once a Thief  is a literal hoot and a holler that catapults us back to San Francisco of the mid-sixties. Within a smoky jazz club, a drummer (Russell Lee) goes to town on a solo, the rolling thunder of his sticks interrupted by random conversations among beatniks in the crowd, a veritable Greek chorus of hipsters. A brunette, bored and French, drawls, “There aren’t very many real people left. The only real people I know are dead, pushed into nut houses, lobotomy, junk, suicide, or really cooling it and saying nothing to nobody.” Elsewhere, zonked-out Luke (Zekial Marko, who also wrote the book the film is based on) has had just about enough. In the general direction of the blonde next to him, he slurs, “If you don’t cool this lickety-split talk-talk jazz, you’re gonna get my paranoid going, you dig?” Brother, you better believe we dig.

onceathief02Sadly, the rest of Once a Thief never quite regains the energy of that opening scene, but as a showcase for the very hot (in all senses of the word) Alain Delon and Ann-Margret, the movie is a serviceable crime thriller. A murder in Chinatown committed by a man in a sheepskin jacket driving a model-A roadster catches the attention of hard-bitten detective Vido (Van Heflin), who immediately links the crime to reformed thief Eddie Pedak (Delon), known model-A driver and sheepskin coat-wearer. Years before, Vido was shot during a heist that led to Eddie spending a few years in the slammer, and he has a score to settle with the ex-con, who he believes was the guy who pulled the trigger on him. Six years out of prison, Eddie has plenty of reasons to stay on the straight and narrow, including his doting wife Kristine (Ann-Margret) and precocious daughter Kathy (Tammy Locke). Still, he has a fishing boat he’s just put a $500 down payment on, he’s barely making ends meet, and when his older brother and former partner-in-crime Walter (Jack Palance) shows up with promises of riches, the temptation threatens to upend his tenuous life as a roaming schlub-for-hire.

For a film shot in San Francisco at the height of hipster-dom, you’d think Once a Thief would be charged with flair, but apart from some warped-out lenswork during some of the film’s big setpieces, director Ralph Nelson plays it straight and stolid. Marko’s screenplay is opportunistic when it comes to capturing some of the feel of the disenchanted generation; a character on the dole even says to Eddie at one point about Marko’s character, “[Nobodies] like him, you and me — we get the chair.” (Little is known about Marko, who wrote under the pen name of John Trinian, but it’s been said he was arrested during the shooting of Once a Thief and sent to prison.) While Eddie might mean well, he doesn’t stand a chance against an Establishment all too willing to grind him underfoot at the first opportunity, and the film’s best scene finds Delon stonewalled at the unemployment office, his life reduced to a file that proclaims he has nothing. “Are all these papers supposed to be me?” he snarls, and then rips them to shreds. “There, it’s that easy. I no longer exist. So go eat your lunch.”

onceathief03“Everybody in this stinking world is a thief.”

Once a Thief may be short on substance or true surprises, but it’s a slick piece of work, with a few aces up its sleeve. The heist that dominates the second half of the film works up a decent amount of suspense as Delon, Palance and their gang race against the clock to burgle $1 million in platinum, and the film’s funniest and most Hitchcockian bit finds Vido paying an unannounced visit to Eddie’s apartment, at one point absent-mindedly holding a scrap of paper containing the layout of the warehouse Eddie plans to knock over (his daughter has proudly doodled a horse on top). One also can’t deny Lalo Schifrin’s juddering score, heavy on the high hat and flutes, or the professional cinematography by Robert Burks (best known for his ’50s work with Hitchcock), and even if San Francisco as a milieu and location isn’t used to best advantage, the actors are too busy chewing up the scenery as if it’s finest-grade ham. The best performance belongs to the effortlessly creepy James Sargatanas as Walter’s right-hand man Chandler. Bleached platinum, smirking with jagged teeth, and queening about (“I don’t like girls,” he says before he empties his automatic into another man), he has a slinkiness and danger the rest of the movie lacks.

onceathief05Regardless of its shortcomings, Once a Thief is at its fizziest (and best) when the plot calls time-out and the camera ogles the leading actors. Master thespians they ain’t, but Delon and Ann-Margret are quite possibly the sexiest mom and dad in the history of cinema. “I want you the way you are — wild!” she purrs at him, his head on her lap, while their daughter innocently scampers around them. Whatever emotional pull the film has comes in the moments in which Delon’s Gallic fatalism butts up against Ann-Margret’s fire. While she might be playing against type as the dutiful wife, and occasionally tips over into hysteria, she’s the heartbeat of the film, and rest assured there’s a moment where she’s gussied up in pussycat lingerie (one has to pay the bills, don’t you know). As the conflicted hero, Delon isn’t required to stretch that much, but he enjoys an easy chemistry with all the major players, including Palance, who is unusually gushy as the affectionate older brother. The home stretch of Once a Thief, as in most films of this stripe, is packed full of double-crosses and bad timing, and there’s little doubt that we’ll end up in a tragic place — but this is the sixties, so in place of the typical tough-guy one-liner to conclude the proceedings, we get a plaintive existential question: “Why in the hell…?” Even though the rest of the film doesn’t rise up to that level of feeling, it’s still an entertaining artifact of a particular time and place, and a reminder that sometimes all you need to put one over on an audience is some old-fashioned star power.

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