In what country -- on what planet? -- are Alain Delon and Jack Palance brothers? The answer proposed by director Ralph Nelson and screenwriter Zekial Marko, who adapted his own novel, is long-disputed multicultural Trieste, where the presumably Slavic-heritaged Pedaks would speak fluent Italian. Walter (Palance) is a full-time criminal, but Eddie (Delon) has gone straight after a stay in stir for shooting a cop, also from the old country (Van Heflin) in mid-robbery. The cop still carries a grudge against Eddie, so when someone driving a car that matches the description of Eddie's vehicle, and wearing a coat that matches the description of Eddie's garment, robs a Chinatown corner store in San Francisco and kills the owner's wife, Inspector Vido's natural assumption is that Eddie is to blame. But the way the robbery was filmed automatically tells us differently. In any event, Vido's suspicions lead Eddie's arrest at his warehouse workplace and his losing his job. Without a job to support his wife (Ann-Margret) and daughter, and too proud to let his wife work as a scantily-clad waitress, Eddie's ready to listen when Walter proposes robbing the warehouse where millions in lightweight platinum are stored. A modest caper ensues, involving tapping the phone line from the warehouse and intercepting a call from purposefully spooked security guards so Delon and an accomplice can show up in cop costumes and get let in. By this time Vido is starting to realize that Eddie had been framed for the grocery job, but can he and Eddie trust each other to get Eddie and his family out alive as Walter's gang falls apart and one sinister accomplice (John David Chandler) decides he doesn't want to share the loot with anyone?...
Once a Thief marked Delon's first job in Hollywood. Studio publicity touted his Gallic rebellious streak, reporting that he'd scandalized M-G-M veterans by smuggling wine into the studio commissary. In a more peculiar bit of publicity, gossip columnists reported that Delon and Ann-Margret had briefly feuded after he had hit her too hard for one of several slapping scenes. The Frenchman reportedly resolved the situation by sending the actress flowers, but there followed an item reporting that A-M was vetoing cheesecake publicity shots for the film on the ground that those undercut the film's dramatic vibe. Seems like an unhappy experience for her, and probably not too happy for most involved in the picture.
Nelson's picture -- his follow-up to Lilies of the Field and Father Goose -- arguably qualifies as a late-noir or neo-noir picture. It boasts nice location cinematography (apart from the occasional process shot) by Robert Burks and obvious noir situations, from the ex-con victim of circumstance to the obsessed, misguided, bullying cop. It adds a sheen of Sixties sleaze with explicit references to lesbians and the aforementioned outbursts of Delon's macho brutality. The worst of those comes when Eddie invades the club where his wife is waitressing. He slams her into a wall, then tries to rip her costume off, saying: "Don't cheat your customers, show them everything!" before dragging her into the street. This comes with the territory of the story but there's something slightly gratuitous about it as well. It means to be a nasty movie -- Chandler's character comes across as a crypto child molester, for instance, -- but it also wants to play for pathos by putting a child in jeopardy and becomes merely pathetic in the mawkish sense at the end.
Apart from Chandler, who is effectively creepy, no one's really in top form here. Heflin's performance is by-the-book predictable. Palance has little to do and is so eclipsed as a villain by Chandler that you wonder finally which character actually framed Eddie. Ann-Margret's response to the rough circumstances of her role is to ramp up her performance to unmodulated hysteria for the final reels. As for Delon, his foreigner's English is adequate as usual, but the role seems wrong for him, especially in hindsight. Nelson clearly saw him as a stereotype fiery Mediterranean type and set him to work chewing scenery, whether when whaling on A-M or in a showoff scene at an unemployment office that seemed better suited for Jack Nicholson. You could have sent Once a Thief to Jean-Pierre Melville before he shot Le Samourai as a primer on how not to use Alain Delon in a crime movie. The cool that Melville did so much to make part of Delon's persona is simply not there. But I'm probably exaggerating my disappointments a little because this whole package clearly had the potential to be much better, and I think people who come across Once a Thief without the high expectations I had for Delon, Palance et al might find it not so bad. Crime film fans with an eye for the genre's evolution will probably get the most out of it, but most people should get at least a few good jolts out of it.