Once a Thief (1965) stars Alain Delon as a former criminal who’s trying to go straight but gets sucked back into “one last heist.”
As any movie fan knows, it’s always that last one that gets you. Van Heflin plays a cop who was shot years ago by Delon, still carries the bullet on a chain as a constant reminder to go with his undying grudge. Heflin hounds and shadows Delon, scoops him up for several crimes and lineups (as his Lieutenant Jeff Corey will tell you with dismay) and is repeatedly proven wrong because Delon has kept clean. He has a new life with wife Ann-Margret and their little daughter, a job as a trucker and he struggles financially but has the wealth of satisfaction and pride in staying good. One night a grocery owner is murdered during a robbery and all signs point to Delon. Heflin points him out to the witness in a lineup (!) but has to let him loose yet again. Coincidentally (or not) Delon’s brother, slimy, smug shark Jack Palance, along with a few old accomplices, have come visiting after years’ absence, with a plan for a heist.
Due to the suspicion surrounding him, Delon loses his job, and the growing pressure, mistreatment, shame and bad luck knock him off course and towards Palance’s promise of a million dollar job. Deln resigns himself to the inevitability that he can never escape what he once was: a thief. While Heflin deduces that the grocery murder was indeed a frame-up, the heist goes bad, leads to Delon’s daughter being kidnapped, and so the sympathetic lawman and repentant criminal end up helping each other.
It’s no groundbreaking or excellent stuff but it’s a solid “ok,” capably done and serves as a decent, jazzy variation on this familiar crime plot. The cast is certainly an interesting combination of personalities: Delon is magnetically brooding and then boiling over when he’s disrespected, Ann-Margret is desperately devoted and a bit too hysterical, and Heflin is really good as the weary cop whose change from relentless to understanding to heartbroken and guilt-ridden was to me the best part of the film.
Palance is coolly intimidating, persistent as the devil on Delon’s shoulder, luring him back to the dark side, but Palance has nothing on the creepy, nearly zombie-like John Davis Chandler, whose eyes roll back in his head when he talks and who blows his accomplices away without a second thought. One interesting appearance comes from screenwriter Zekial Marko, who adapted his own novel and plays Delon’s doomed cellmate in some wild and crazy scenes where he skips along to jail and has a flippant, hep-talk-heavy exchange with Heflin that could have used some subtitles (like the jive scene in Airplane!). It all looks great due to many creative and arty shots by Hitchcock favourite cinematographer Robert Burks. You could do worse than grab this one when you just want a reliable “I tried to get out but they pulled me back in!” story.