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Cult Movie Picks - January 2012
Remind Me
,Once a Thief

Once a Thief

At the time that he was called back to the United States by MGM to appear in Ralph Nelson's San Francisco-set crime film Once a Thief (1965), Jack Palance had enjoyed several years of a working vacation abroad playing outsized and outlandish characters torn from history, the Bible and pulp fiction: in Berlin for Robert Aldrich's Ten Seconds to Hell (1959), in Yugoslavia for André De Toth's The Mongols (1961) and in Italy for Rudolph Maté's The Barbarians (1960), Vittorio De Sica's The Last Judgment (1960) and Richard Fleischer's Barabbas (1961). Palance had just played a crass Hollywood producer hoping to turn the myth of Ulysses into a popcorn muncher in Jean-Luc Godard's Capri-set Contempt (1963) and he was able to import a little of that character's serpentine suavity to the role of Italian immigrant-made-bad Walter Pedak in Once a Thief. The part is small and clearly in support of headliners Alain Delon and Ann-Margret but Palance is, as ever, incandescent and unforgettable, whether chiding kid brother Delon over his choice of liquor, mothering a henchman who has just had his front teeth knocked out in a fight or speaking rapid-fire Italian with a Chinese undertaker. Once a Thief may not be one of the late actor's better-remembered films but it is vintage Palance, a singular portrait of preening villainy humanized through a unique combination of braggadocio and vulnerability.

Once a Thief was based on the autobiographical novel Scratch a Thief by habitual criminal turned Hollywood screenwriter Zekial Marko. Biographical information on Marko remained scant throughout his lifetime; only after his death from emphysema in May of this year did it become known that he was born Marvin Leroy Schmoker in 1933 and that he had begun writing fiction upon his release from a prison stretch for a nonviolent crime. As a novelist, Marko published a string of pulp novels under the alias "John Trinian," many set in and around San Francisco's bohemian North Beach district. He gained a Writer's Guild of America card in 1964 when MGM bought the rights to Scratch a Thief and retained him to adapt it for the big screen. (Marko's 1960 caper novel The Big Grab had already been filmed in France as Mélodie en sous-sol [1963], starring Jean Gabin and Alain Delon - released in America as Any Number Can Win.) He enjoyed a short industry career, scripting teleplays for such weekly TV series as Toma, The Rockford Files and The Night Stalker (the supremely creepy "Zombie" episode) but seems to have retired or given up by the mid-70s. Although few in number, Marko's stories are distinguished by an acute sensitivity to social injustice, with his characters etched as victims of a world gone cold in the push toward modernization...rugged individualists whose true worth could never be punched into an IBM card.

Such is the case of Eddie Pedak, the Italian immigrant protagonist played by Alain Delon in Once a Thief. For this prestige picture, MGM paired "Europe's top young actor" (as their press materials dubbed Delon) with "Hollywood's most exciting young actress" - Ann-Margret. The Sweden-born bombshell was riding the wave of her combined acting and singing career, which had paired her with Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas (1964) and had her spoofing her own image as "Ann-Margrock" on The Flintstones prime time animated series. The two stars are well matched - both classically beautiful young people with chemistry to burn yet with cruel, atavistic mouths that make them persuasive as lovers who chase their romance with a little drop of poison. (The scenes in which the Pedak marriage sours point to Ann-Margret's acidic turn in Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge, 1971.) Complicating the equation further are Palance's crime boss older brother and his highly motivated "business" partners (Mad Dog Coll's [1961] John Davis Chandler and Tony Musante (in his film debut), as well as the dogged detective (Van Heflin, contributing a wonderful late career performance) whom Eddie had wounded during the heist that sent him to prison and who wears the extracted .38 caliber slug as a watch fob, symbolizing his enslavement to vengeance.

Although produced well after the official cycle had come and gone, Once a Thief is resolutely film noir, from the evocative shadowplay of its mise-en-scène to its grim, deterministic and surprisingly vicious climax, set in the early morning gloom of Fisherman's Wharf. While attractive and sympathetic, Eddie nonetheless bears the expected character flaws that cause him to queer the goodness in his life and fall back into the bad habits that will seal his doom. The film's outlook is fatalistic and its body count high, with Once a Thief filling the heist-goes-wrong gap between Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) and Giuliano Montaldo's Grand Slam (1967). Of course, Alain Delon being on the receiving end of much of the misery, one can't help but think of his future collaborations with Jean-Pierre Melville (for whom he headlined the downbeat 1970 caper film, The Red Circle); when Kristine Pedak cracks wise to Eddie "You should wear a trench coat," the line prefigures Delon's signature role as the glum hit man of Melville's Le Samouraï (1967).

For all its promise, Once a Thief failed to set the world on fire. The consensus of critics who remained unimpressed at the final fade out was that the production was over-reliant on crime genre and TV clichés. The film is certainly better than that and (at the time) was an atypical choice for director Ralph Nelson, who had garnered an Academy Award® nomination in 1964 for his helming of the feel-good movie Lilies of the Field (1963) with Sidney Poitier and who had just come off the WWII comedy Father Goose (1964) starring Cary Grant and Leslie Caron. To get the most mileage out of his grimy North Beach locations (and to minimize the taint of Hollywood gloss), Nelson and Oscar®-winning cinematographer Robert Burks (veteran of a number of films for Alfred Hitchcock, among then Rear Window [1954], Vertigo [1958] and The Birds [1963]) employed a newly developed high speed film that permitted them to shoot night scenes with mostly existing lighting, augmented by innovative one-pound quartz lighting units which cut the heat by nearly 40% and the overall lighting budget by half. The film's early scenes, set in and around Big Al's bar, have a documentary grit and are fairly frank in their depiction of drug use and homosexuality.

Despite the expected big pay-out for location shooting and name actors, Nelson brought Once a Thief in at $100,000 below the approximately two-million dollar budget. And this was with an extra two weeks tacked onto the shooting schedule because the normally gloomy San Francisco weather (key to the film's downbeat conclusion) was being uncharacteristically bright and sunny. For her part, Ann-Margret didn't complain about the overtime, as she was in the courting stage of her now forty-year marriage to actor/singer Roger Smith, at the time appearing at the famous North Beach nightclub The hungry i. Shooting wasn't entirely without incident, however. Zekial Marko (who appears in a small role as Eddie's former cellmate) was detained for questioning by the San Francisco Police Department while Ann-Margret received a black eye from her costar during one of their more physical scenes. The actress herself made headlines when she threw an ashtray (at Ralph Nelson's command, "with all your might") during another emotional scene, overshooting her mark and striking Nelson in the head. The wound required nineteen stitches to close and shut down the production of Once a Thief for the day.

Director: Ralph Nelson
Screenplay: Zekial Marko, based on his novel Scratch a Thief
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Paul Groesse
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Film Editing: Fredric Steinkamp
Cast: Alain Delon (Eddie Pedak), Ann-Margaret (Kristine Pedak), Van Heflin (inspector Mike Vido SFPD), Jack Palance (Walter Pedak), John Davis Chandler (James Arthur Sargatanas), Jeff Corey (Lt. Kebner SFPD), Steve Mitchell (Frank Kane), Tammy Locke (Kathy Pedak), Tony Musante (Cleveland 'Cleve' Shoenstein), Zekial Marko (Luke).
BW-106m. Letterboxed.

by Richard Harland Smith

Once a Thief, MGM Pressbook
My Story by Ann-Margret with Todd Gold
"Reaching for the World: Alain Delon Talks to Robin Bean About His 7 Years in Films," Films and Filming, February 1965
A Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson
Biography of Ralph Nelson by Pierre Sauvage