The first time I saw Once a Thief was back in 1965. It was at a third tier theater called the Harbor located in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Why do I remember this? Most likely, because watching the film back then, with a non-critical eye, I just liked it. I always liked crime films and having already discovered Cagney, Bogart and Garfield on TV it seemed like a pretty good fit. It may have also had something to do with Ann-Margret who for a few years in the sixties I possibly had a crush on. Well, alright I did have a crush on her! Can you blame me? If I remember correctly, every time I saw an Ann-Margret film back in those days I had to spend extra time in the confessional revealing a few additional impure thoughts. If case you were wondering I never mentioned her name to the priest. I don’t kiss and tell, not even in my dreams. Anyway, enough confessional time. Back to the show.
The idea of teaming French male heartthrob, Alain Delon, and the latest swingin’ 60’s American sensation must have seemed like a great idea to the folks at MGM. I remember reading that Ann-Margret, in her autobiography, wrote “the film did respectable business.”  Whatever that actually means, I don’t know. I do know it was not a huge hit. It probably made its money back. Later that year she appeared in The Cincinnati Kid which did much better than respectable business and was a better film. Once again, I digress. That darn Ann-Margret!
Unfortunately, the premise of the film was dated even back then. A small time thief tries to go straight, but too many obstacles, mainly in this case, an unforgiving cop and a crooked brother who stand in the way. With a smooth jazzy opening by Lalo Schirin, a touch of The Asphalt Jungle type heist, excellent black and white cinematography by Robert Burks and some crazed off beat characters, it all should have added up to something more than standard stuff. It’s not that the film is bad, it’s just seems that with a more original story it would have had the potential to be something more.
Eddie Pedak (Delon) is an ex-con. He’s married to Kristine, (Ann-Margret) and they have a young daughter. For the past six years Eddie’s been going straight. He has a steady job driving a truck. However, he also has a cop (Van Heflin) with a grudge on his back who keeps haunting him. He’s waiting for Eddie to make one mistake. With that mistake, he plans on taking Eddie down. Then there is Eddie’s older brother, Walter (Jack Palance), a career criminal who has plans for a big one million dollar heist. However, he needs Eddie, someone he can trust, in on the deal. Eddie refuses. That all changes after Eddie is framed for another crime by one of Walter’s thugs. He soon ends up losing his job due to police harassment. With no job, Kristine takes some work as a waitress in a nightclub while Eddie stays at home doing “woman’s work.” When Eddie sees her one night hustling drinks in a skimpy outfit he drags her out of the club. With both of them now unemployed, no money coming in, Eddie breaks down and joins Walter in the robbery. One time for big dollars. Just about as expected, the heist itself goes well, but greed among the thieves soon turns it all heading downhill.
The script was written by Zekial Marko, an ex-con, based on his own autobiographical pulp novel called, Scratch a Thief. Delon is fine in his role as Eddie if you don’t mind a character who is said to be Italian having a French accent. Ann-Margret in what was said to be a major dramatic role seems to scream and cry throughout most of the film.
Along with Alain Delon, Ann-Margret, Van Heflin and Jack Palance, the cast includes Jeff Corey, Tony Musante and the always sinister John Davis Chandler in another of his truly nasty roles. Chandler never became a major name, however, he created a series of creepy roles in both films and on TV. His first screen appearance was in the low budget 1961 film Mad Dog Coll where he played the title role of Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, a real life psychotic underworld hitman. Other films he appeared in included Ride the High Country, The Young Savages and The Outlaw Josey Wales among others. On TV he left his sinister imprint in many series including The Untouchables, Murder, She Wrote, Hill Street Blues and Toma where he reunited with Tony Musante.
Once a Thief is a surprisingly bleak film. You get the feeling right from the beginning that all is not going to end well. Released in 1965, right on the cusp of the end of the old Hollywood and the birth of the new, the film, after its initial release, drifted undeservingly out of sight. It was rarely seen until Warner Archives released it VOD a few years back. The film was directed by Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field, Requiem for a Heavyweight and Duel at Diablo). A real highlight is Schirin’s jazz like soundtrack which lends a hip feel to the proceedings especially in the early scenes. Also adding a nice realistic touch is the film was shot on location San Francisco.
Once a Thief is uneven. That said, it’s entertaining enough to make it worth watching even if, like me, you find it’s storyline too standard and that the French Delon and Jack Palance are said to be Italian brothers born in Italy. Even their last name of Pedak is decidedly non-Italian. Of course, there is that young and beautiful Ann-Margret to help take your mind off those defects.
 Ann-Margret, Gold, Todd, Ann-Margret: My Story (1994), New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons P. 151
I’ve always been curious about this film – which I’ve never seen – but not because of Ann-Margret. No, it was Alain Delon who piqued my interest. Fortunately, not having been Catholic, I never had to confess the thoughts he stirred.
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Eve, True, the film has eye candy for everyone. 🙂
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I saw this on TCM a few years ago. It certainly sounded promising, considering the actors involved, but proved so routine that I’d even forgotten that Jack Palance was in it until I read your review and saw his photo.
Exactly! Sadly the film had a very ordinary script that it did not manage to overcome.