Alain Delon as Eddie Pedak, reformed thief
San Francisco, Spring 1965
Film: Once a Thief
Release Date: September 8, 1965
Director: Ralph Nelson
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
On the last day of #Noirvember (and Alain Delon’s birthday month) and the first day of this winter’s #CarWeek series, it felt like the perfect time to explore Once a Thief, Ralph Nelson’s moody black-and-white crime drama starring Delon as a reformed criminal-turned-family man.
The jazzy opening credits depict a night at Big Al’s, a smoky den laden with drug pushers and beatniks, including author Zekial Marko, whose novel Scratch a Thief provided the movie’s source material. We follow a young man swaddled in sheepskin as he leaves the club and takes the wheel of a vintage “Model A Ford” roadster, which then becomes his getaway car after a swift but deadly closing-time stickup at a liquor store in Chinatown.
We then learn that the car and coat are a trademark of Eddie Pedak, a reformed armed robber making an honest living as a truck driver with his wife Kristine (Ann-Margret) and their daughter. The arrival of Eddie’s criminal brother Walter (Jack Palance), a syndicate hotshot, brings complications in the form of a proposition for one night’s criminal work—the proverbial “one last job”—which Eddie initially refuses, despite the $50,000 payout.
It turns out that Eddie, who truly is making an honest go at his American dream, was framed for the opening crime by Walter’s double-crossing cohorts to ruin his chances for legitimate employment and lure him back into the fold… a plan that unfortunately works once Eddie’s situation grows more desperate.
Once a Thief was the second film Delon starred in that was adapted from a book by Zekial Marko, having appeared two years earlier in Any Number Can Win based on his 1959 novel The Big Grab. Marko actually played a small role in Once a Thief, including one scene with Delon to be filmed inside Los Angeles County Jail. Having been arrested the previous evening on a cannabis charge, Marko was simply moved to the cell lit for the scene to deliver his performance and then returned to his own cell when his acting duties were complete.
What’d He Wear?
Sheepskin coats were indeed having their moment during the 1960s, rising above their functional origins to be established as fashionable outerwear whether worn over a suit or sport jacket as modeled by Rod Taylor in The V.I.P.s or more casually over winter-friendly layers like Robert Redford’s sporty look in Downhill Racer.
In 1964, the year before Delon wore his in Once a Thief, Hardy Amies described sheepskin in ABCs of Men’s Fashion as “the skin of the sheep with the wool left on and dressed as a whole for garment making,” expanding the definition to address the then-trendy sheepskin coat which “will present a suede outside and an attached wool lining inside.” Differing perspectives argue whether shearling is a classification of or synonym for sheepskin, but it feels safe to follow the Orvis definition of “a shearling sheepskin is the skin of a shearling lamb that’s tanned, processed, and dyed with the wool still intact,” while sheepskin may refer to the hide of a sheep of any age.
Though sheepskin garments reportedly date back to the Stone Age, it was the early years of military aviation leading up to World War II that standardized the functional processing of sheepskin outerwear as Allied pilots took to the skies in their Irvin flying jackets or B-3 bomber coats that insulated against decreasing temperatures at increasing altitudes. The naturally water-resistant and moisture-wicking fabric kept pilots and air crews warm and dry while the conditions in and around their unpressurized planes fought to keep them anything but.
These victorious pilots returning home brought with them the image of the hero who stays cool and collected under pressure, wrapped in the rugged yet rakish sheepskin that had been keeping men warm for thousands of years, since the primitive era of hunter-and-gatherer culture.
Particularly during the Victorian era, sheepskin outerwear was indicative of higher social strata as its expensive production ensured only the richest could wear it. By the mid-20th century, the perceived danger associated with the garment due to its wartime usage increased greatly increased the demand, including among consumers who couldn’t practically afford authentic sheepskin. In response, lookalike jackets were developed with a polyester-based “sherpa” lining for a low-cost alternative. Of course, genuine sheepskin remains a far preferred alternative for its lighter-wearing yet more insulated properties.
San Francisco’s mild climate, influenced by cool currents from the Pacific, makes sheepskin the ideal cloth for Eddie Pedak’s trademark coat. Its rugged yet respectable association is consistent with Eddie’s persona as an honest “tough guy” and it can be comfortably dressed down with a T-shirt or dressed up with a tie.
Eddie’s sheepskin jacket is styled like the traditional thigh-length car coat, short enough to not get in his way as he climbs in and out of his roadster… or, in a past life, his getaway car. The single-breasted coat has four large wooden (or faux-wood) buttons up the front between the waist and the yoking across the chest. Above that horizontal yoke, the reverse “lining” of the coat presents the piled wooly shearling fur like a set of wide notched lapels. This furry side can also be seen piled around the cuffs at the end of each set-in sleeve. Eddie’s coat has two large patch pockets with gently reverse-slanting openings across the tops.
It was grocery store owner Mr. Wing’s description of a young man wearing a “sheepskin coat” that led Inspector Mike Vido (Van Heflin) to suspect Eddie as the killer thief. Once Vido finds a second coat in a second Model A roadster, he informs Eddie, who then confronts Walter’s gang with the knowledge that he’s been framed:
Two guys… one was wearing a sheepskin coat, like mine. They made off in a Model A, like mine. Someone tried to frame me for a murder.
When we meet Eddie at the start of the film, he’s wearing his sheepskin coat over a dark ribbed short-sleeve T-shirt—almost certainly black—tucked into casual trousers. These flat front trousers rise to Delon’s natural waist, where they’re held up with a dark (again, probably black) textured belt with a well-polished rectangular single-prong buckle.
The trousers have slanted “frogmouth”-style front pockets positioned just below the belt line in addition to jetted back pockets. Likely made from a cotton chino cloth, Delon wears them like some men today would wear jeans, and indeed contemporary promotional art colors these trousers to a denim-like shade of blue.
For the planning, execution, and fallout from the heist, Eddie wears a two-pocket work shirt in a light blue soft flannel, its color confirmed by on-set photography. The shirt has a front placket, rounded barrel cuffs with a single-button closure, and two chest pockets with a horizontal yoke across the top of each.
Delon had previously worn similar shirts under his “tough guy” leather jacket as a criminal in Any Number Can Win, so this shirt was likely a product of the same manufacturer. In Once a Thief, Eddie’s shirt and black tie serve a purpose so that he can efficiently swap out his sheepskin coat for a police jacket and hat during the heist when he and the sinister Sargatanas double as security guards.
Eddie wears plain black wool flat front trousers, self-supported around the waist with the “DAKS top” system of button-tab side-adjusters introduced by Simpsons of Piccadilly in the 1930s, best seen here during the climactic finale. They fasten in the front through a hidden double-hook on the square-ended front waist tab. Like his more casual chinos, these trousers have then-fashionable “frogmouth”-style front pockets and jetted back pockets. They fit straight through the legs to high-breaking bottoms that are finished with turn-ups (cuffs).
The short trouser break complements Eddie’s footwear, a pair of black leather plain-toe ankle boots with a buckled strap around the top of each two-piece shaft, similar to engineer boots. Not a common style found today, these hybrid ankle/engineer boots are still offered by some retailers like Ferro Aldo (via Amazon), and even those place the buckle lower that on Eddie’s boots. Given the shades of his trousers and boots, Eddie wears black socks.
Although Eddie has lost his jacket by the end of Once a Thief, Kristine seems to be making up for the loss by continuing to wear her own shearling-inspired coat. Likely made from all wool rather than sheepskin, her burnt orange coat with its contrasting beige lining takes its styling cues from her husband’s trademark outerwear.
Eddie Pedak’s reluctant recruitment into Walter’s gang has him issued a .38-caliber revolver that he recognizes as his “old gun”, indicating some well-deserved suspicion that his brother’s cronies had used it to frame him for killing Mrs. Wing during the Chinatown grocery heist. The weapon appears to be a blued Smith & Wesson, a pre-Model 10 service revolver in .38 Special with a 6.5-inch barrel.
Prior to Smith & Wesson numbering its revolver series from the 1950s onward, this K-framed duty model was designated the Smith & Wesson Military & Police (M&P) revolver. The M&P was introduced around the start of the 20th century in a variety of law enforcement-used cartridges, though it was Smith & Wesson’s concurrently developed .38 Special that became the most popular load not just for this weapon but for most police revolvers issued throughout the century.
Even after the M&P was standardized as the Smith & Wesson Model 10 in 1957, lengths ranged from a “snub nose” 2 inches up to a substantial 6.5 inches as wielded by Delon as Eddie Pedak, with the 4-inch barrel most popular for service revolvers issued to police and even the military when the U.S. authorized the parkerized “Victory Model” for World War II usage.
After Sargatanas (John Davis Chandler) kidnapped the Pedaks’ daughter Kathy, Eddie tracks him down and fights him. Once Eddie gains the upper hand, he commandeers Sargatanas’ 1911A1 pistol, which is fitted through Once a Thief with a short suppressor. The bore suggests that Sargatanas’ 1911 is a genuine .45-caliber handgun rather than the 9mm copies used in productions around this period.
Sargatanas’ pistol deviates from the classic mil-spec 1911A1 with details like a large ramped front sight and angled cocking serrations on the slide which follow the directional slant of the grips. It’s the latter that particularly perplexes me when trying to identify the maker. Colt, the OG as far as 1911 pistols are concerned, had been producing slanted-groove slides as early as 1957 when the Gold Cup National Match target model was introduced, though these also boasted a skeleton trigger and adjustable notch rear sight while Sargatanas’ 1911 appears to have a standard trigger and subtler fixed rear sight.
A theory introduced but quickly dismissed by IMFDB was that the slanted grooves were consistent with 1911A1 pistols made by Auto-Ordnance, the company that manufactured the “Tommy guns” that made the ’20s roar. While Auto-Ordnance now produces original mil-spec 1911A1 pistols resembling those issued at the start of the 20th century, the company’s first—and arguably less reputable—run of 1911s were differentiated by longer triggers and slanted grooves that followed the direction and slant of the grips. However, according to IMFDB, Auto-Ordnance was not yet manufacturing 1911s in 1965, so the maker of the slanted-groove 1911A1 seen in Once a Thief remains a mystery.
Eddie Pedak’s 1931 Ford Model A makes him a subject of suspicion after a similar roadster is clearly seen as the getaway car during the deadly grocery store stick-up that opens Once a Thief.
I’d long admired these stylish little cars since Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway rode around Texas in their own “stolen four-cylinder Ford coupé” for part of their lethal crime spree in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). We’re unable to discern the exact color of Eddie’s Model A due to Once a Thief‘s noirish black-and-white photography, but I suspect it may be painted yellow like one of the roadsters driven by Beatty and Dunaway.
After the transformative Model T was discontinued for the 1927 model year, Ford dusted off the Model A designation that had been previously used on a series of red two-seater runabouts in 1903 and 1904. Plenty had changed in automotive technology in the quarter-century since, and the new generation of Model A cars boasted a water-cooled four-cylinder “L-head” engine that generated 40 horsepower and could reach top speeds around 65 mph. The two-speed planetary transmission that guided the Model T was replaced by a more dynamic three-speed synchronous “crash gearbox” with an added reverse gear.
In another contrast to the original Model A runabouts, the new series was offered in nearly three dozen body styles and trims, including two-door roadsters and cabriolets up to town cars and even pickup trucks and wagons. The apocryphal “any color so long as it’s black” philosophy was discarded in favor of a range of colors.
Introduced nearly 93 years ago to the day on December 2, 1927, the Ford Model A became an instant hit for consumers craving customizable variety at an affordable price. Sales reached one million within a year and a half and two million by the summer of 1929. Nearly five million were manufactured and sold by the time production ended in March 1931, of which more than 450,000 were two-door drop-top roadsters.
These “Standard” and “Deluxe” roadsters were among the most popular of the wide-ranging body styles produced during the Model A’s run, offering high style at a low price tag that remained below $400 throughout the four-year production span. These two-door steel-bodied drop-top coupes with elegant lines also offered a folding rumble seat for additional passenger space.
1931 Ford Model A Standard Roadster (Model 40B)
Body Style: 2-door roadster
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 200.5 cu. in. (3.3 L) Ford L-head straight-4 with Zenith carburetor
Power: 40 hp (30 kW; 41 PS) @ 2200 RPM
Torque: 128 lb·ft (173 N·m) @ 1000 RPM
Transmission: 3-speed sliding-mesh manual
Wheelbase: 103.5 inches (2629 mm)
Length: 152.7 inches (3879 mm)
Width: 55.8 inches (1417 mm)
Height: 68 inches (1727 mm)
How to Get the Look
In Once a Thief, Alain Delon models the versatility of a sheepskin car coat, wearing it casually with a T-shirt or more dressed up over a collared shirt and tie, while always maintaining the image of rugged respectability associated with this light but warm-wearing outerwear.
- Light brown sheepskin shearling four-button coat with beige pile lining, horizontal yokes, set-in sleeves with reverse-showing cuffs, and slanted-opening patch pockets
- Light blue flannel work shirt with point collar, front placket, two chest pockets, and 1-button rounded cuffs
- Black tie
- Black wool flat front trousers with button-tab “DAKS top” side adjusters, frogmouth front pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Black leather ankle boots with top buckle-strap
- Black socks
- Wedding ring
Do Yourself a Favor and…
I’m a thief, so I’m going out!