Once A Thief from director Ralph Nelson (Requiem for a Heavyweight) and DP Robert Burks (Vertigo), and starring Alain Delon (Purple Noon, Le Samouraï) in his first Hollywood feature, is a derivative late noir with a hip Lalo Schifrin score and atmospheric on the streets of San Francisco visuals tinged with a European neo-realist aura.
Zekial Marko’s script has all the noir tropes but the picture never gets beyond the promise of the brilliant opening credits which feature Frisco freaks getting off at a jazz club.
Delon, as a young immigrant from Trieste with a wife and daughter, both played with considerable effect by Ann Margret as the wife and 6yo Tammy Locke as the child, is trying to go straight after doing time for a robbery and shooting a cop. After a frame-up his estranged older brother and mobster Jack Palance (Panic in the Streets, Sudden Fear, The Big Knife) turns up and wants him for one last big heist. It all moves predictably to a violent denouement on the Frisco waterfront. Delon strangely, when you consider his persona in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, is less than effective, while Palance brings a certain realist cred to his portrayal of a hood who wants to keep things in the family. Margret delivers some justified histrionics at the climax while managing to steer clear of melodrama. An aging and visibly weary Van Heflin (Johnny Eager, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Prowler ) as a cop tries hard but his heart is not in it. Particularly effective and chilling is John Davis Chandler as a violent psychopath in a signature henchman role.
The violence while stylised is brutal enough to evoke both shock and empathy. A lengthy heist sequence and a kidnapping borrow a lot from Jules Dassin’s Rififi and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, both immeasurably superior films.
Check out the opening credits which I guarantee will have you intrigued: