Saturday, September 23, 2023

In short: Thief (1971)

Neal Wilkinson (Richard Crenna) is a professional burglar. Two convictions and prison sentences behind him, the next time he’s caught he’d be up for a mandatory ten year sentence (because US laws make no sense). Neal also has a son somewhere he genuinely wants to regain custody of, and a new, increasingly serious girlfriend in Jean (Angie Dickinson), who knows nothing of his past. So he has every reason to keep on the straight and narrow; he’s even serious enough to have hired a lawyer (Cameron Mitchell) to help him there.

But right now, Neal really isn’t quite as straight as he pretends to be. He’s still clearly enhancing his income through opportunistic acts of thievery, and he’s lying through his nose to his probation officer (Michael Lerner). To make matters even more dicey, the thief also has a gambling problem, and he’s stupid enough to pay his gambling debts to civilians with cheques he knows will bounce and end his parole. To keep that particular wolf from the door, Neal is all too willing to go on a rather more risky crime spree than is his usual style.

As directed by TV movie specialist William A. Graham, this crime drama is an unassuming little film. Its protagonist’s troubles are life-shattering for him but not terribly dramatic in form or execution.

This will make Thief a bore to some, but I’d argue its small scale and its air of the quotidian are the film’s strengths. While this always stays a – well, if unspectacularly, directed – TV movie and can’t go as far in certain directions as contemporary theatrical films would have, there’s a groundedness and a sense of somewhat sad, small-scale reality to the film that works very well for it. Not every genre film needs to be big and spectacular.

Thief also recommends itself through a very 70s style downer ending with a side dish of dramatic irony. One could find it unpleasantly moralizing – thieves weren’t allowed to prosper by the era’s TV rules, after all, but Graham throws his ending at the audience so quickly and off-handedly, it feels organic and surprisingly true to the rest of the film.

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