[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]
The spectre of Blake Edwards hangs over The Thief Who Came to Dinner because two of his frequent collaborators worked on it and because Edwards himself might have made the film go, which Bud Yorkin hasn’t managed to do. Thief cries out for Edwards’s special knack of imparting a combined sense of cool, elegant modernity, subdued emotionality, and unpolemical bitterness that implies a previous history for the characters and a meaningful present-tense context for the generic games being played on screen. Yorkin and his screenwriter Walter Hill (who also worked on Hickey and Boggs and The Getaway) can’t decide whether to go for suspense, comedy, or romance (Edwards could have had all three with delirious simultaneity) and end by providing little of each.
Ryan O’Neal is not hard to take (he was surprisingly effective—for Edwards, again—in The Wild Rovers) as a computer programmer with an IBM-type corporation who throws over his job and sets out to become a high-society sneakthief, for the money but mainly for the sheer brazen hell of it. The quietly eccentric girl he acquires early in his career (Jackie Bisset) asks him what it feels like to do what he does, and he likens the thrill to a heart attack—something that befalls the insurance investigator (Warren Oates) who begins to dog his trail and who is several times compared, especially by O’Neal’s ex-wife, to the former, law-abiding O’Neal. Yorkin and Hill try to get at some handy truths about our time that will lend a sense of weight to their enterprise: “everybody steals” somehow, so why shouldn’t O’Neal, who at least aspires to be a flamboyant popular hero of a thief, leaving chess pieces and indicating chess moves in the game he is playing with destiny. As truths, such verbally didactic (and not very original) gestures simply tear through the insubstantial fabric of the film and sink from view, if not from memory; the way to wax relevant in such a genre piece is not through declaration but rather through the nuances of performances, the dissonance of rhythm and pace, an appreciation of locale as selective living-space instead of chichi backdrop, and there’s not much of that sort of thing here.
Austin Pendleton is funny as a newspaper chess master who only reluctantly takes on the Chess Bandit as a probably unworthy opponent, then finds to his increasing horror that the bandit is whipping him to a frazzle. But the humor doesn’t enhance the rest of the film since Pendleton’s scenes are in every way separable from the rest of the action: his part could be cut for TV and you’d never know it was gone. Warren Oates does his usual thorough—if, here, rather too manneristic—job of embodying the organization man who begins to respond to the insouciance of his counterpart, but the character as written and directed is always a beat away from conviction and Oates can’t rectify the failure of focus, least of all in a terminal scene which is unsatisfying most of all because at that point we are confronted with how personal and peculiarly memorable the film might have been. Blake Edwards at his best has the adroit touch to bring such elusive hybrids of characterizations and qualities to flower as, one suspects, he might have given the potentially effective Jacqueline Bisset the sort of direction she very much needs if her career is not to continue running in the same groove of tried-and-true breathiness and brownness that has begun to grow tiresome histrionically and cinemagenically; she deserves—and would reward, I feel sure—the same sort of break Susannah York received in being directed by Robert Altman (Images). Meanwhile, The Thief Who Came to Dinner is noteworthy only as a film that might have been. The present movie is at once predictable and underachieved, fitfully pretentious and inherently trivial. And—as a last auteurist nod—it offers yet another instance of the phenomenon that first-rate artisans like Philip Lathrop are very likely to produce dull and ordinary work away from a director worthy of their mettle; compare his camerawork here to the variously distinguished jobs he did for Edwards (Gunn, Wild Rovers, Pink Panther) and John Boorman (Point Blank).
THE THIEF WHO CAME TO DINNER
Direction: Bud Yorkin. Screenplay: Walter Hill, after the novel by Terrence Lore Smith. Cinematography: Philip H. Lathrop. Music: Henry Mancini.
The Players: Ryan O’Neal, Jacqueline Bisset, Warren Oates, Austin Pendleton, Jill Clayburgh.
Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson