The ex-con-trying-to-go-straight plot, the protagonist here is unfairly fingered for a Chinatown murder, and then gets roped into one last heist job by his hood brother. That’s Eddie Pedak (Alain Delon) with wife Kristine and daughter Kathy (Anne-Margaret and Tammy Locke), brother Walter (Jack Palance) and his muscle James Sargatanas (John David Chandler) and Luke (Zekial Marko). Putting the screws to Eddie are Inspectors Vida and Kane (Van Heflin and Steve Mitchell). The deal is that Vida thinks Eddie shot him once (the shooter was masked) on an earlier job involving Eddie and Walter.
We see Walter and the creepy James emerge from their Imperial to do some nefarious business with Eddie. Palance’s voice is so right-on mafia- gravelly that we can almost overlook that nothing about him seems Italian. “Brothers ars supposed to help each other!” he insists, “I bring you to this country.” But Eddie insists he’s “retired.” The pinch is worth a million, with $50k up front; still, Eddie says no dice.
Despite Inspector Vida eager to get Eddie down for the murder, the victim’s husband, having himself seen the killer close up, cannot identify Eddie. So Eddie walks. Now, however, he’s got a grudge against Vida in particular–and I suppose–the law in general. Some nice domestic stuff at the Pedak’s, along with “Honey, what are we going to use for money!”; spliced into Vida at police headquarters.
At the unemployment office, he sees that Luke is down for the murder. Then he finds out that his employer fired him already. Hmm, isn’t Eddie about ripe for a quick score? Anyway, Vida is watching him. That night, Eddie comes home drunk, only to find his brother and the goons holding the fort. Eddie beats up the hapless Luke.
But, finding his wife in a slinky outfit slinging drinks in a dive, he whacks her (nobody seems to care), and seeing Walter lurking around, immediately says “I’m in.” It’s good that it took an extra kitchen sink to convince him–this is old-time film noir territory. He’s so bitter “It’s everybody’s fault!” But on-task, so to speak, busily studying the ‘layout.’
The crew meet in the backroom of a Chinese funeral parlor. Amazingly, the Asian proprietor speaks Italian. Walter gives Eddie his old gun. Vida, meanwhile, sees Eddie’s Model A in the police lot (it was stolen, and isn’t really Eddie’s). More interestingly, Eddie actually worries about Walter’s future; big brother plans to escape back to Italy after the big job.
Vida is right there waiting for him at home. Oddly, the cop reveals that he knows Eddie had been framed for the Chinatown murder (by Walter, no less). Ironically, he almost seems proud of being a criminal; after Kristine shames him for going in on the heist, he gives a big smile and says “Isn’t that what thieves do?”
Then, at the last-minute meeting with the other criminals, he confronts Walter with Vida’s revelation. Walter get the point across that the million-dollar heist is “all that counts” (nice hierarchy of values there). Onto the heist site. Certainly an appropriately dingy woe-begone industrial hell. Looks like they’re gonna do some blasting. They create a distraction to get the guards’ attention.
The plan includes a rather ingenious telephone tap, so the guards, who think they’ve summoned help, really just talk to James. They get the wrong kind of help in the form of pretend cops, James and Eddie. All of this stuff is taking much too long. The stacked pallets againt the ghostly warehouses makes for superb atmosphere, but it seems as though we have to hear every bit of crunched gravel and watch for every endangered bug on the premises.
C’mon, let’s blow some stuff up! Finally, the plastic explosive’s on the safe; on the down side, they didn’t really secure the security guards well enough. One of them gets to a phone, but our criminals know they’ve already jiggered with that. The real surprise is that James kills the Asian guy, “one less split” is the rationale. As a result, now it’s just Eddie and Walter with the goods. They stow it cleverly by driving their small getaway van into a semi’s larger van.
Kristine takes a call from Eddie to meet him at the docks–but she refuses. Eddie is soon down there anyway. Back at the target site, Vida is correct this time that the Pedaks were in on it. Kristine does show down at the dock afterall, but she’s completely beside herself–Kathy’s been kidnapped. He “promises” to fix it.
Getting back home like a flash, he comes into a macabre scene: Walter, nearly dead, propped up in a chair, with a note pinned to him–“Eddie wait love S [that is, Sargatanas].” Walter stirs a bit, then collapses, dead as a rock. Kristine, too, is collapsed on the dock, still stunned. Eddie gets a call from James, who is, of course, the only one freaky enough to have taken the kid. She gets on the phone with daddy.
But James cautions daddy “You’re gonna have to sweat a bit” before Eddie has a chance to get her back. Well, the cops have honed in on Eddie’s car, so he takes Walter’s. He goes to Vida’s, and fills him in; he asks the cop for help. For his part, Vida gets Eddie to admit that he was after all the punk who shot him. Adversaries for years, they have built respect and trust, and make a deal. Vida agrees to act as go-between to get the kid back.
Meanwhile, Kristine, absolutely impatient, calls the cops, getting Kane (because Vido is busy backing up Eddie). That’s going to make for a slam-bang denouement. At least Kathy is freed; but all the Pedaks are in danger now, as the loot is still in the rig near to mom and daughter. The cops arrive just as Kathy is reunited with mom. Vida watches Eddie lead James to the truck.
Vida, not knowing that there’s other cops on the scene, pursues James as well. Now Kristine chases after Kathy, who Kane uses to pinpoint the truck. I’m thinking two of the three Pedak’s are not going to make it. Now, Luke gets it, and Eddie’s winged. Eddie and James wrestle under a truck, with Vida closing in. James gets it–thank god–with his own gun. Walking up to Vida with the now-empty gun, Eddie says “I fixed it.”
Well, unfortunately, because Kane doesn’t know the score, he shoots Eddie. We get a brilliant, but terrible shot from Eddie’s dying eyes, as Kathy, thinking it’s all still just a game, covers them up with the palm of her hand–a black screen. Vida gives Kristine a searching, tragic look.
Great ending for a very successful, and very late film noir. Stealthily, the game motif, from Kathy’s point of view, is underlying many of the heavy scenes. Never once does the kid realize that she and her parents are in danger; the hoods focus on her, and weirdly play along with her delusion.
That’s a great device that makes so many scenes more anxious than if a bunch of numbskulls were just trying to off each other. Another highlight is the variety of relationships explored. Kathy’s relations with everyone are funsy no matter what the actual intent of the adults around her; it’s as though even the punks have to respect her innocence.
But Eddie’s relationships are all twisted up–hs loves Kristine, but mistreats her. He spends most of the time hating Vida, but he can count on him at the end. The deal with Walter is the most complex of all. They don’t trust each other, but even though neither of them can give the other what they need, they do patch things up, and they do have each other.
The cast is full of all sorts of antagonistic characters, some of whom, as noted, switch things up quite a bit. Ann Margaret has probably the most difficult role, similar in some respects to the role she had in The Cincinnati Kid (also from 1965). She’s trying to have a normal life with chaos all around her.
At the other end of humanity lies James, as thorough a scum-bag (very much a Christopher Walken type) as ever amassed that svelte brand of cruelty in a film character.
This is a very entertaining, atmospheric noir with excellent characters. Only the drawn-out heist scene mars the overall effect.
Farmermouse thought that Eddie’s Model A was amazingly well-preserved for 1965 (maybe it was restored, but probably 98% of them were either turned into hot-rods or oval-track racers by then). He’ll give Once a Thief nine rumble seat rides. 9/10.