Produced and directed by W.LEE WILDER ( the lesser known brother of Billy Wilder),ONCE A THIEF had advertising that included:
“PORTRAIT OF A HEEL!” And
“SHE WAS MANHANDLED, MISUSED AND DISCARDED!”
The plot could be described in one sentence – JUNE HAVOC’S downfall at the hands of CESAR ROMERO. But there’s a lot going on in this melodrama and I found it quite difficult condensing the story into a few lines.
The story is told in flashback after the opening scene of June Havoc entering the Los Angeles Sheriff’s dept.and handing herself in for murder.
June has lost her job and is getting desperate. In a diner, IRIS ADRIAN gets talking to her and says:” So you’re hanging on by your eyelashes – a pretty gadget like you. You’ve got nothing to worry about. just stick around me.”
That meeting for June is fatal. She joins shoplifter Iris in several robberies in jewellery shops but eventually it’s all too much for her and she leaves Iris and finds some luck, working as a waitress in a cafe where she is happy for the next year.
Then fate steps in again and she gets entangled with CESAR ROMERO who is soon borrowing money from her and promising marriage.
When he threatens to leave, she joins Iris in one last robbery but they both get caught.
In the voice- over, June says:
” So instead of a wedding ring on my finger,I wound up with an handcuff on my wrist.”
Eventually, with Iris’s help, she escapes from prison and comes after Cesar who has been romancing her friend, Marie McDonald.
Cesar’s character is breathtaking in his total disregard for anyone except himself. Even his friend LON CHANEY finally gives up on him.
ONCE A THIEF was another independent production which didn’t have the luxury of a studio back lot, so we got some fascinating Los Angeles shots.
It was interesting to see MARTA MITROVICH ( who was memorable in THE UNFAITHFUL), playing a former girlfriend of Cesar’s . When he brushes her off casually, he says:
“You could drop dead for all I care.”
The girl later kills herself.
I didn’t recognise MARIE(THE BODY) MCDONALD. She gives a quiet,confident performance as June’s friend who is also taken in by Romero.
Iris ADRIAN is good as always. I love one line she delivers when June thinks Iris has turned her in to the police:
“Me squawk?! “
CESAR ROMERO, in another role far removed from his usual light roles at Fox ,is convincing as the no good who ruins lives without a thought.
JUNE HAVOC makes the most of a starring role and although I like her,she never seemed the type who could be led into a life of crime,or be taken in by the Romero character.
From what I’ve seen of June ( GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT,INTRIGUE,STORY OF MOLLY X, HELLO FRISCO HELLO), she is multi-talented and Hollywood should have used her more, especially in musicals as she was a good singer and dancer. And she was a natural in drama and comedy.In fact an all-rounder.
Interesting too that she had a small part in MY SISTER EILEEN with Rosalind Russell who went on to play June’s real life mother in GYPSY.
I’d also like to see June in a 1952 film,LADY POSSESSED with James Mason.
I liked ONCE A THIEF a lot. The advertising I mentioned doesn’t do it justice. It’s well written and the story contains a lot more than my brief summary. If you get the chance, it’s worth a look.