I devote a lot of time and space on this blog writing about ‘B’ Movies, those frequently overlooked quickies from days past made on the cheap for the bottom of a double feature bill. Some are highly innovative, others less so, but they served as a kind of on-the-job-training ‘film school’ before there was such a thing. Most (but not all) of them have something to offer, whether a performance by a cast member on their way up (or down) or an early effort by a future director of note. Recently, I watched ONCE A THIEF, and while it certainly broke no new ground, I found it a tight little ‘B’ noir featuring in this case a female protagonist trapped in that familiar downward spiral.
‘B’ Movie Queen June Havoc (sister of famed ecdysiast* Gypsy Rose Lee) is the troubled gal in question, a down on her luck lady named Margie Foster. She’s tutored in the art of shoplifting by brassy dame Pearl (played by brassy Iris Adrian), but when a good crime goes bad, Margie flees San Francisco for L.A. No, she doesn’t become an ecdysiast, instead she winds up with a job at a diner and becomes roommates with co-worker Flo (Marie “The Body” McDonald), and sets about trying to go straight.
Into Margie’s life comes Mitch Moore (Cesar Romero ) a charming con artist who runs a bookie joint with his partner Gus (Lon Chaney Jr. ). Mitch’s main con is fleecing lonely dames out of all their dough, and when he sets his eyes on Margie, he gives his latest fling Nicki the brush (she in turn takes the gas pipe), and hustles Margie with his sweet-talkin’ B.S. stories. In the process, Mitch steals a valuable watch from her, only to find out later it’s as hot as the proverbial pistol.
Having no more money to support Mitch, Margie hooks up with Pearl back in Frisco to get some loot, only this time she gets busted and sent to stir. Mitch, that rat, calls off their impending wedding, and begins to put the make on Flo while Margie’s behind the walls, claiming he needs quick cash to hire Margie a “high-priced lawyer”. Now Margie, seeing Flo get in Mitch’s car from a prison window, puts 2+2 together, thinking Flo has betrayed her, and busts out of prison to seek revenge. Meanwhile, Mitch and Gus’s bookie emporium gets raided, he’s locked up, and things really take a turn for the worse…
June Havoc really gets to shine in this gritty little crime drama, especially at the end. Romero, Chaney, and company are all seasoned veterans who know how to get a part over, even if it’s in low-budget fodder like this. Smaller roles are filled by Familiar Faces Bill Baldwin, Kathleen Freeman , Michael Mark, and Ann Tyrrell, professionals one and all. The movie was directed by W. Lee Wilder, whose film career wasn’t nearly as successful as his younger brother Billy’s . The budget restrictions are covered up well by DP William Clothier , later more closely associated with the films of John Wayne (14) and John Ford (5). ONCE A THIEF isn’t up there with DETOUR or GUN CRAZY as a trendsetting low-budget noir classic, but it’s an entertaining little number that held my interest for about 90 minutes. Can’t ask for much more than that in a ‘B’ Movie!
*in case you were wondering, ecdysiast is just a fancy name for stripper!