Sunday 7 September 2008

Once a Thief (1965)

Unashamedly hip from its opening in a jazz club where a blistering drum solo punctuates a few customer comments, this one is a film noir from the sixties that has a lot of substance to go with its style. Also while it feels dated because of the actors, the black and white and the dialogue, it also feels very current. Unlike most classic films it could easily be remade today and yet not seem like a remake. With mere changes of setting I could see the Coen Brothers doing it and I could see John Woo doing it too (his own film of the same name is unrelated).

There's a robbery at Wing's Market and Mrs Wing is shot dead, apparently with deliberate intent not through any unforeseen circumstances cropping up. From the details at hand (sheepskin coat, Model A Ford, name of Eddie), Insp Mike Vido of the San Francisco Police department knows precisely who did the job: a man by the name of Eddie Pedak. He knows this because he's been after Pedak for a long time, ever since Pedak shot him in the gut during a robbery quite a few years earlier. He even has the bullet that came out of his gut and the rifling matches. The only catch is that Mr Wing got a very good look at his wife's killer and he says that Pedak isn't the man.

Nonetheless Pedak finds himself in an unenviable position. He's out of yet another job, after Vido picks him up from work, and he's just put money down on a boat, not to mention he has a wife and kid to look after. Vido is hounding him from the side of the law and his brother Walter is hounding him from the side of the crooks. While Pedak has apparently been clean for six years, he's also damn good thief and Walter wants him for a big job. It's also pretty obvious that both sides are playing him against the other. That means that whatever he chooses to do and whichever side he chooses to work with he has to be very careful indeed.

The cast is top notch. Eddie Pedak is played by Alain Delon, who was always superb at walking that line between the good and bad and ending up doing it precisely how he wanted to do it. Vido is an eager Van Heflin on the top of his game and Jack Palance plays Pedak's brother Walter. Only Ann-Margret lets the side down, overacting up a storm as Kristine Pedak. John Davis Chandler is the most memorable as Sargatanas, one of Walter's henchman who looks like an albino with eyes that hardly open. In a Coen Brothers version of this story, he would be played by Steve Buscemi.

The story is a solid one, with great characters for a bunch of actors to breathe life into and a whole slew of twists to keep us on our toes. It moves along very nicely indeed with aid from some decent cinematography and use of light and shadow. The ending is highly appropriate. Being 1965, the film noir genre was over as a key genre, but odd little gems kept appearing to keep it alive for generations to come. It's easy to see how this links the forties with today. It's a fascinating, well acted and clever story and Zekial Marko, the man who wrote it as a novel and a screenplay, put in his only acting role, ending as a suicide on the front page of the paper. That's immortality, film noir style.

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