Prime Time Larceny: It Takes a Thief

Al Mundy (Robert Wagner) enjoys a reputation as a world-class thief, a glamorous burglar, a pickpocket's pickpocket. Too bad he landed in prison.

A product of TV's schizophrenic late '60s, It Takes a Thief is a light-hearted escapist adventure that ran on America's ABC network from January 1969 to March 1970. Some shows come out on DVD a season at a time, or even half a season, but not this one. The box contains all three seasons plus a few bonuses, and we shall stroll through the summery maze of its garden with our magnifying glass in one hand and pinking shears in the other, a manservant following behind with a tall cool beverage on a silver salver.

The series was a vehicle for Robert Wagner in his niche as a handsome TV-friendly leading man who avoids overly heavy material. He plays suave anti-hero Al Mundy, who enjoys a reputation as a world-class thief, a glamorous burglar, a black-garbed dangler from skylights over fabulous jewels in closely-guarded museums, a spinner of combination locks with his ear to the tumblers, not to mention a pickpocket's pickpocket. Too bad he landed in prison. On the day he executes an ingenious escape attempt, he discovers he's been tapped for service by Noah Bain (Malachi Throne), the ex-cop who arrested him.

The balding, gruff, almost snarling Bain looks a bit like an angry doorknob. He's a chief of the SIA, which is supposed to be the CIA without coming out and saying it. In the pilot, he glibly summarizes the premise thusly: "Espionage today is mainly larceny and homicide. The best people for that are thieves and murderers. If we want to steal something, let's have a thief." If you let that elitist pragmatism sink in, it opens the possibility of a subversive, satirical critique. It's fair to say the producers don't really want it to sink in.

So Noah Bain springs Mundy on parole and keeps him on a tight leash, always threatening to bounce him back into stir if he fails to pull off some heist from a foreign embassy or retrieve a defector or double agent from the Soviets or the Red Chinese. The show isn't coy about naming the Cold War enemy, although it often invents foreign nations for its antics.

Mundy lives in a velvet cage. For his cover as an international playboy (and noted thief? for plot purposes, he can be either), he lives in a mansion and must be seen at casinos on the arms of beautiful women. It's a dirty job, etc. For a nod at credibility, at least Noah is always bitching about his budget. Closed-circuit monitors in the mansion are meant to ensure that Mundy never gets anywhere with the she-keepers, lest Noah show up glowering and barking like a dyspeptic producer annoyed with his star. With his cameras, Noah personifies the broadcast standards of his day: tease and tantalize with voyeuristic promise but don't go through with it.

However, it was a transitional period for TV, and the show ends up strongly implying that Mundy manages to have a sex life anyway (and this progressive scamp is willing to flirt with women of every race and nation). In fact, by the second season, the cameras are no longer mentioned and Mundy seems to be on a much longer leash, even taking vacations on his own. Also, Mundy has become more trustworthy in terms of no longer trying to freelance extra diamonds into his pocket.

Speaking of sex, the series manages the amazing feat of showing off swarms of fabulous females with hardly any of them needing to be rescued, unless Mundy's right there needing rescue with them as they work together. Just fast-forward 30 years to the no-nonsense Agent Scully of The X Files, for example, and consider how often she got kidnapped, trussed, gagged, stuffed in car trunks, and impregnated by aliens, and you'll realize how groundbreaking this simple avoidance of damsels-in-peril truly is. It's not only ahead of its time, it's often ahead of ours.

The show is littered with beautiful women who demonstrate the evolution of this post-Diana Rigg, post-Barbara Bain, post-Barbara Feldon era by falling into three categories. Some are merely decorative, some are femme fatales, a few are ditzy handfuls, and many are competent intelligent professionals who simply happen to be gorgeous. The first three categories had always been a part of male adventures on TV and movies, while the last began asserting itself most strongly on TV (more so than films) during the late 60s. TV is generally 10 to 20 years ahead of cinema in social values, since TV shows have a more immediate and immoderate production schedule. They remain closer to the living room, even when escaping from it.

The Formula and Its Forbears

Each episode whets our appetite with a bit of suspense or mayhem already in progress. Then Dave Grusin's swanky theme music, which sounds a little like it's played on a groovy car horn, swings over mod, multi-colored credits that evoke the era's craze for split-screen gimmickry (e.g., The Thomas Crown Affair). Then, in the weekly expository ritual, the uptight Noah explains the assignment, hectoring and cajoling Mundy as the latter lounges on a sofa making dry interjections like "Terrific" and "Oh, you're beautiful, baby."

(He's capable of greater wit, as when he explains how he learned to pick a lock: "My father taught me on my 16th birthday. He wanted me to follow in his fingerprints." Let's credit the writer of that one: British comedy scribe Norman Hudis.)

Returning to the weekly crisis, basically Mundy must sneak in somewhere and steal something for his country. He devises his own plans, which sometimes involve disguises and masquerades in various accents, and which can be ingenious in their near-plausibility. Alas, something nearly always goes wrong.

In one episode, he breaks a leg or ankle or something and must coach Noah through the charade via transistor earpiece in order to lift this week's gadget. This is unusual because Noah normally just stands by bothering Mundy, but here Noah hits it off with an Iron Curtain scientist (Ida Lupino). In another caper, Mundy breaks his whatsis again and must cast a substitute, a double-crossing old comrade (Fernando Lamas), then recuperates enough for them to get in each other's way. It's actually one of three adventures with Lamas, who always plays a different character; this is the one with the castle moat and the tiger.

The high concept behind the series is to combine the spy genre with the heist genre. Both trends had exploded in '60s film and TV and were just starting to wane when this series premiered. The glamorous Euro-heist had been kicked off with Rififi, a film referenced in an early episode when Mundy wants to watch it on TV. The show's title also invokes the Alfred Hitchcock trifle with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, To Catch a Thief, since they form the aphorism "It takes a thief to catch a thief." Even at the height of the show's popularity, many viewers mistakenly called it To Catch a Thief and probably still misremember it.

The modern heist or caper film was an extension of classic thief romances such as Raffles and Trouble in Paradise in that besides glamorous locales and costumes, it emphasized the breathless mechanics of the heist itself. The heist and its smaller-scale cousin, the swindle or con game, had reached a TV pinnacle with The Rogues (1964-65), a European-shot series with Gig Young, David Niven and Charles Boyer leading a wealthy family of thieves who put their skills to work on the side of the angels. (Where are those episodes now?) Then Bruce Geller melded the elaborate scam with the spy game in the very successful Mission: Impossible, which was going strong as It Takes a Thief premiered.

They are close relatives conceptually, with differences in tone and approach. Geller's series is cold and emotionless, with every plan unfolding like clockwork during its early seasons, always five steps ahead. It took the producers a while to realize that sometimes things have to go wrong or the suspense gets dull. It Takes a Thief, created by Rolanld Kibbee, carries a warm, larkish tone from the beginning, mostly conveyed by Wagner and plots that have unforeseen wrenches tossed into the works. At its best, it keeps Mundy hopping and improvising, which leaves the viewer enjoyably off-balance within the inevitable formula of a successful outcome.

Although it's just kidding, the show occasionally makes feints in the direction of post-John Le Carré realism via sour asides on what a gloomy, deadly game it is where everyone's considered expendable by their own government (yet no one who matters ever dies). The noir-tinted landscape of spy fiction, and the world around it, had changed to the extent that even audiences who wanted light escapism wouldn't buy the naively good-natured idealism of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. plots of a few years earlier. Thus we can find episodes like "Get Me to the Revolution on Time", in which a sympathetically angry and charismatic black Caribbean revolutionary (Ivan Dixon) does business with a cabal of throat-cutting white Yankee capitalists more unscrupulous than he, not that it does him any good. More serious episodes arrive in the third season, and we'll get to them in due time.

Behind the Scenes: Season One

The first few episodes are largely shaped by writer-director Leslie Stevens, celebrated creator of The Outer Limits. That includes a pilot, barely over an hour long, that was shown in a 90-minute slot and was severely cut down from a feature-length theatrical version seen in Europe. That complete version is included as a bonus, and viewers should go to it directly and skip the short version, which lops out 45 minutes to finish incoherently.

Stevens must have liked working with close-cropped Susan Saint James, who was at the beginning of a career with Universal TV that led directly to The Name of the Game and McMillan and Wife. She played an ill-fated stewardess in the pilot, and he brings her back twice in a new role as kooky jewel thief Charlene Brown, called Charlie or Chuck -- get it? She bounces back in Season Three for a couple more double-crossed scams. Briefly hovering around the edges of these early outings is Amanda Andrews (Francine York), one of the live-in lovelies whose main duties are modeling tight sweaters; they get dropped (the lovelies, not the sweaters) along with Stevens.

The Stevens output was produced by Frank Price, who settles into the role of executive producer for the rest of the season. Price, on his way to being head of Universal TV during the '70s and then head of Columbia Pictures, oversaw two mostly independent production units on the series. The episodes produced by Winston Miller seem relatively serious; in a bonus interview, Glen A. Larson calls them the more precision-oriented, Mission: Impossible shows. This isn't strictly so, for Miller's last episode is the season finalé, a Riviera lark with Hermione Gingold as a faded flapper whose scandalous memoirs will supposedly embarrass several governments.

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