Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Overlooked Classics: Once A Thief

1965's Once A Thief belongs to and yet transcends the sixties. The Ralph Nelson directed black and white crime film starred two of the charismatic stars of the time, Ann-Margret and Alain Delon, and also featured a wealth of extraordinary character actors in support.
The film tells the story of Eddie Pedak, a former criminal, who is trying desperately to make an honest life with his wife and daughter. Unfortunately he has both a cop (Van Heflin) and his brother (Jack Palance) constantly on his back, neither one able to accept that he has really gone straight.
Lalo Schifrin provides one of his more intense brassy scores and Robert Burks stark cinematography is perfectly suited to the grim feel the whole film has. Nelson's opening montage of doping hipsters is one of the most memorable of the decade and Frederic Steinkamp's great editing lends the film a frenetic, authentic feeling that was ahead of its time.
While the film is clearly a product of the sixties, its dreary world weary outlook and dark attitude feels much more like the American cinema of the decade that followed. It has much more in common with the European crime films of the sixties, especially from France, than most of the films the US was producing at the time.
Alain Delon and Ann-Margret are at their absolute physical peak here. It's hard to think of a more smouldering and intensely beautiful couple. Ann-Margret was on absolute fire here on the heels of both Viva Las Vegas and Kitten With A Whip. Once A Thief would prove her dramatic chops and lead the way to her great performances in films like Carnal Knowledge and Twice In A Lifetime. Delon, of course, was experiencing one of the great decades for any actor before or since. Once A Thief is one his great and most underrated characterizations and probably his best English language role. The icy facade that he is so well known for drips away throughout this film, this is a man in trouble and he plays it beautifully.
Once A Thief has never been commercially available either on VHS or DVD in the USA. This is truly puzzling as so many lesser films with lesser stars from the period have made it. I first saw it when I was a teenager on late night TV in a cropped and faded edited print. Thankfully it pops up occasionally on TCM in a beautiful uncut wide screen print. Keep an eye out for it, it's one of the best films you've probably never seen.

No comments: