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The Thief Who Came to Dinner

The first of five films starring Warren Oates to be released in 1973 -- following his previous movie Chandler (1971) -- The Thief Who Came to Dinner finds him as an insurance investigator trying to track down Houston jewel thief Ryan O'Neal. This slight but sleek comedy, directed by Bud Yorkin of All in the Family and Sanford and Son TV fame, also features Jacqueline Bisset as well as supporting turns from Ned Beatty and Jill Clayburgh.

The script by Walter Hill, from a novel by Terrence Lore Smith, has O'Neal quitting his mundane job as a computer analyst in order to steal jewelry from snobby society ladies across Houston. Soon he's known as "the chess burglar" because he leaves a calling card at the scene of each crime in the form of a chess piece, along with a note describing a chess move. Asked why, he explains, "Throughout the ages great minds have turned to chess -- Napoleon, Da Vinci and Cromwell. It goes hand-in-hand with a lust for greatness."

Bisset (a last-minute replacement for Charlotte Rampling when Rampling became pregnant) plays an impoverished heiress with a ramshackle mansion who becomes O'Neal's girlfriend. Clayburgh plays O'Neal's ex-wife, and Oates brings wry humor to his part of the investigator, who comes to like O'Neal so much that he may not be able to bear bringing him in. Austin Pendleton turns up as a chess columnist who challenges O'Neal to a chess duel in the film's funniest scene.

The movie shot in Houston for seven weeks in the spring of 1972, followed by three weeks at a Warner Bros. soundstage. Many prominent Houston sites were used, as were two private area mansions. One was used for a house party sequence, with all 100 extras friends of the real-life homeowners. In lieu of being paid for the work, they asked the studio to make a donation to a Houston charity.

Director Yorkin originally planned to shoot a climactic jewel heist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but the museum wouldn't allow it. So he spent an extra six days in Houston to film it at The Houston Museum of Fine Arts. He told Variety's Army Archerd that he was "happy to do it. And we promised both [museums] we wouldn't identify the site of the scene. I wanted to donate $1000 a day to [LACMA] for its use. You run into enough of those experiences and you don't want to shoot here in L.A." He added, "I like it better on location."

Critics were generally amenable to the film, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it "as relaxing as a warm bath. Henry Mancini's charming music is listenable, romantic and humorous." The Los Angeles Times declared, "Oates lends the film some much-needed wry edges," and Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, "It would be difficult to name any contemporary film with less sense of consequence than The Thief Who Came to Dinner, yet it's this quality that gives the comedy its buoyancy even when its sense of humor fails... It is no avalanche of hilarity, but it respects a kind of comic make-believe that is rare in movies these days... Both Oates and Pendleton are maniacally serious about themselves and therefore extremely funny, as are Ned Beatty, as a Houston jewel fence, and Jill Clayburgh."

Variety pointed out an interesting historical note: "O'Neal's use of an amorous female canine to distract some watchdogs salutes a gambit used by real-life [1920s] thief Arthur Barry, the gentleman intruder of Long Island jewel boxes."

Ned Beatty later recalled being quite happy to have Bisset in the cast. When the beautiful actress joined Beatty and O'Neal on their off-days hanging at a swimming pool, "it was two real happy Kentucky boys, I'll tell you."

By Jeremy Arnold

VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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