Once A Thief from director Ralph Nelson (Requiem for a Heavyweight) and DP Robert Burks (Vertigo), and starring Alain Delon (Purple Noon, Le Samouraï) in his first Hollywood feature, is a derivative late noir with a hip Lalo Schifrin score and atmospheric on the streets of San Francisco visuals tinged with a European neo-realist aura.
Zekial Marko’s script has all the noir tropes but the picture never gets beyond the promise of the brilliant opening credits which feature Frisco freaks getting off at a jazz club.
Delon, as a young immigrant from Trieste with a wife and daughter, both played with considerable effect by Ann Margret as the wife and 6yo Tammy Locke as the child, is trying to go straight after doing time for a robbery and shooting a cop. After a frame-up his estranged older brother and mobster Jack Palance (Panic in the Streets, Sudden Fear, The Big Knife) turns up and wants him for one last big heist. It all moves predictably to a violent denouement on the Frisco waterfront. Delon strangely, when you consider his persona in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, is less than effective, while Palance brings a certain realist cred to his portrayal of a hood who wants to keep things in the family. Margret delivers some justified histrionics at the climax while managing to steer clear of melodrama. An aging and visibly weary Van Heflin (Johnny Eager, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Prowler ) as a cop tries hard but his heart is not in it. Particularly effective and chilling is John Davis Chandler as a violent psychopath in a signature henchman role.
The violence while stylised is brutal enough to evoke both shock and empathy. A lengthy heist sequence and a kidnapping borrow a lot from Jules Dassin’s Rififi and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, both immeasurably superior films.
Check out the opening credits which I guarantee will have you intrigued:
3 thoughts on “Once a Thief (1965): Late noir à la européenne”
I must say that I am completely in accord with your summary analysis and judgement, Tony on this fine but generally unremarkable mid-20’s work. It does have its fans though. Nelson hit a grand slam with REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, and Burks as you note in a cinematographer of massive distinction – one of the best at his craft- and Delon’s iconic status need not be repeated. I was all ready to jump in with a “heist” and kidnapping comparison to RIFIFI and THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, but you beat me to the punch. Delon’s work in LE CERCLE ROUGE is recalled in this context and in part we might be persuaded to argue for Kubrick’s THE KILLING at least for half the equation. I completely agree with you that John David Chandler brings home the acting honors for the film.
Yet another exceedingly splendid review at FILMSNOIR.NET! Can’t argue the noir aspects in the film either.
Oh and yes, I definitely count myself as a fan of Schifrin’s score!
Thanks Sam, and for reminding me of Le Cercle Rouge.