Jun 22, 2015

On DVD: Crime and Intrigue in Once a Thief (1965), The Secret Partner (1961) and Signpost to Murder (1964)

I recently watched three very different takes on the 1960s crime thriller now available on DVD from Warner Archive. Once a Thief (1965), The Secret Partner (1961) and Signpost to Murder (1964) tread similar ground, from bleak situations to twisty plots, but each film has its own unusual character.

French star Alain Delon and Ann-Margret as a couple? That's all I needed to draw me to Once a Thief. That pairing, and an unusual cast including Jack Palance, Van Heflin and John Davis Chandler as an incredibly creepy, subhuman thug, are what bring distinction to this otherwise routine take on a former convict who struggles to stay honest after serving eighteen months for armed robbery.

Director Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field [1963]) sets a good scene, with friendly, if scrappy teens hanging out on a city stoop, and stores, streets and nightclubs that feel real. A laidback Lalo Schifrin score, more jazzy than his typical groovy vibe, gives the drama a cool feel. You know what's going to happen though--Delon's going to be drawn back into crime, it's not going to go well.

So you are left with Delon and Ann-Margret, who are pretty hot together. They're married, with a kid, but they can barely wait for the little one to drop off to sleep before they launch into foreplay in the doorway. Ann-Margret can go a bit over-the-top when she gets angry, but for the most part, you feel her dilemma as a woman who knows she's married a man who is bad for her, but wants him so bad she can't leave him.

I had trouble watching Delon as an English-speaking character, he seems meaner, and less erotic when not speaking his native tongue. It struck me how the much older and less conventionally handsome Heflin as a detective almost seemed sexier than him sometimes, just by the force of his charisma. 

The action in The Secret Partner is preceded by a dying marriage, and the film has the same cold fish feel as a fizzling love affair. Stewart Granger stars as a shipping executive who is being blackmailed by his dentist because of a crime in his past. He is then framed for another theft, all while his wife (Haya Harareet) leaves him because she thinks all his payments are funding extramarital trysts.

This is a slow-moving, but attractive production, also with a fine jazzy score. I was struck by some of the unusual angles that Basil Dearden used to heighten the sense of dread and peril. However, there isn't much of interest to enliven the pretty feel of it. 

Most of the cast is effective enough, and there are some novel twists, it's just not terribly exciting. It's easy to see why Harareet (Ben-Hur [1959]) didn't have much of a film career. She's attractive, but so lacking in interest she's almost a void onscreen.

That said, the film held a muted appeal for me. Its twists were just novel enough to surprise me and keep my attention to its bitter end, where I wondered if there was anyone worth rooting for.

I enjoyed seeing Stuart Whitman take on a rare starring turn in Signpost to Murder. He's an unusual star, not exactly handsome leading man material, but not quite a character actor either. With his slender waist, high shoulders and square chest, even his appearance seems to defy categorization.

Here Whitman stars with Joanne Woodward, in a nearly house-bound film that clearly shows its roots on the stage. He's Alex Forrestor, a man who has been committed to a mental institution for the murder of his wife. 

The hopeful, and seemingly cured convict breaks out when a doctor tells him of an old law which grants a new trial to escapees who can elude capture for two weeks. His hiding place: Molly Thomas' (Woodward) house, which is down the road from the institution.

And what a bizarre house it is. Filled with oddly placed chairs and couches, all of them seeming to discourage any sort of interaction between guests, the most unusual feature is a creaky old mill wheel which is visible through a large window in the living room and the bedroom on the floor above. The drippy squeaks of this odd feature punctuate the film's soundtrack for almost the entire running time and you can't help but wonder how Molly keeps from going crazy.

Though she is at first understandably reluctant to harbor a fugitive, Molly becomes attracted to Alex very quickly. You can only guess that she's got a taste for bad boys, or maybe the rush she gets from fear. 

Police detectives, her maid, even the local pastor tromp through her house, looking for Alex and trying to comfort her over the murder of her husband in the woods the day of Forrest's escape. Though the man hiding in her bedroom could have made her a widow, she never thinks to give him up, even though she easily could.

Whitman and Woodward are an uncomfortable match. It isn't easy to accept them as irresistibly attracted to each other, but they commit to the convictions of their characters with fascinating intensity.

It doesn't all quite come together as it should, but these people are so strange, so off-center in their behavior, that the film is fascinating in an unsettling way. There were a few twists that surprised me, even though in retrospect I couldn't believe I didn't see them coming. It was almost as if I had been sold on the character's odd sense of logic.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.


  1. Couldn't agree more on THE SECRET PARTNER. It was a real letdown! Loved "so lacking in interest she's almost a void onscreen." We saw this one very much the same! LOL.

    Best wishes,

  2. I'm cracking up Laura! I read your review and we really did see eye-to-eye on this one. I remember finding Harareet extremely stiff in Ben-Hur, so I didn't expect her to blow me away, but man, she is such a blank onscreen. I couldn't even appreciate her on a superficial level. I thought that was weird! I've never experienced that feeling before.