Once a Thief (1965): Ralph Nelson’s Visually Striking Noir Crime Drama, Starring Alain Delon, Ann-Margret, Van Heflin and Jack Palance

Ralph Nelson directed Once a Thief, a moody black-and-white crime noir drama, starring Alain Delon, Ann-Margret, Van Heflin and Jack Palance.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Already a huge star in France and Europe, the handsome and versatile Delon was brought to Hollywood in an effort to make him a bankable actor in the U.S.  That goal was never achieved due to a variety of reasons, prime among which is the lack of discrimination in choosing good and commercial material. Eventually, Delon went back to France, and continued to enjoy and long and fruitful screen career.

 

Once a Thief
Once a Thief 1965.jpg

Original movie poster

 

The movie was known in France as “Les tueurs de San Francisco” (“The Killers of San Francisco”).

In this tale, written by Zekial Marko, based on his novel, Delon plays Eddie Pedak, a former convict, trying hard to lead a straight normal life in San Francisco with his loyal wife (Ann-Margret), young daughter and a steady job.

Much to his chagrin, he also has a police detective (Van Heflin) and brother (Palance) complicating his life.

The cop, Mike Vido, remains bitter over being shot by Eddie during a robbery. He promptly has Eddie unjustly arrested again for another theft, but he is forced to drop the charges and turn him loose.

Eddie nonetheless loses his job because of the arrest, forcing his wife Kristine to take a job at a dingy nightclub, which upsets Eddie, hurting his macho image.

In desperation, Eddie finally accepts the offer of his persistent brother Walter to participate in a big heist, alongside with two accomplices, Sargatanas and Shoenstein.

The thieves get away with $1 million in stolen goods except, but in the process Walter is killed. Since Eddie alone has the truck with the heist’s haul, Sargatanas decides to abduct Kristine and keep her until he gets his hands on the merchandise.

While investigating, Vido becomes convinced that Eddie was framed for the original job that left the cop wounded.

When Vido arrives to help Eddie in a showdown with the other thieves, Eddie ends up dead trying to protect him.

The story was based on the personal experiences of screenwriter Zekial Marko, who had written the novel The Big Grab, which was adapted into Any Number Can Win, a big hit for Delon.

Once a Thief was based on Marko’s novel “Scratch a Thief,” and this was his first screenplay. Marko had a small role in the film and spent time in jail on criminal charges during the shoot.

The noir melodrama is impressively tough and laconic, but ultimately its tone might have been too much of gloom and doom to find appreciative audiences.

Nonetheless, through repeated showings on TV and film clubs, the movie has gained in artistic stature over the years.

Always appealing, Delon conveys the inner and outer struggles of a gangster-with-a-heart-of-gold, even when he is cast in a rather familiar narrative.

Early on, there is a strikingly-shot sex scene between Delon and Ann-Margret, executed in nearly real-time, including interruption mid-way by their sleepless daughter. (It’s the kind of depiction seldom seen in mainstream Hollywood movies).

Production values are first-rate.  The settings are convincing and lingo terse and hard-bitten, as befits the dialogue used by the gunmen, narcotics addicts and hipsters.

Lalo Schifrin’s multi-nuanced jazzy music and the sharp imagery of Robert Burke (Hitchcock’s regular cinematographer) accentuate a rather realistic feel of life in San Francisco’s lower depths.

Cast
Alain Delon as Eddie Pedak
Ann-Margret as Kristine Pedak
Van Heflin as Mike Vido
Jack Palance as Walter Pedak
John Davis Chandler as Sargatanas
Tony Musante as Shoenstein
Jeff Corey as Lt. Kebner
Steve Mitchell as Frank Kane

Credits:

Directed by Ralph Nelson
Produced by Jacques Bar
Written by Zekial Marko, based on Scratch a Thief by Zekial Marko (as “John Trinian”)
Music by Lalo Schifrin
Cinematography Robert Burks
Edited by Fredric Steinkamp
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: September 8, 1965

Running time: 106 minutes

Note:

TCM showed the movie on August 31, 2020, as part of a tribute to Alain Delon.