Like its amiable leading character, The Thief Who Came to Dinner neither contributes much of anything to society nor aspires to do so—this is simply a lightweight caper flick with attractive leading players, an eclectic supporting cast, and a winning sense of humor. Ryan O’Neal stars as Webster McGee, a bored computer programmer who quits his job when he realizes that in a consumerist society, everyone’s stealing from everyone else—so why not just become an actual criminal? Targeting the jet set, people whom he figures can afford to lose some of their extravagant wealth, McGee starts breaking into homes, and the movie has fun demonstrating his not-always-successful methods—for instance, he carefully cuts a perfect hole in a second-story window, only to have the entire window shatter when he extracts the portion he’s cut.
Eventually, Webster purloins incriminating documents from a corrupt executive (Charles Cioffi), and then blackmails the executive into introducing Webster to other wealthy people during a dinner party (hence the movie’s title). In addition to helping Webster target potential victims, this move connects Webster with Laura (Jacqueline Bisset), a gorgeous heiress. During one of the movie’s most enjoyable dialogue exchanges, Laura reveals that she’s just as impressed with Webster’s looks as he is with hers. “You’re too beautiful to be any good,” she says. “Any good at what?” he replies. “What else is there?” she retorts. Zing!
Based on a novel by Terrence Lore Smith, The Thief Who Came to Dinner was scripted by Walter Hill, generally known for his terse action stories, and this is by far the best-realized pure comedy in his filmography. Rather than trying for big laughs, he opts for gentle situational humor and soft-spoken running gags, although his gifts for manly-man storytelling serve him well in terms of driving the narrative forward with ticking-clock tension. And even if the cat-and-mouse game that arises between McGee and an insurance investigator is rather trite, the playfulness of the storytelling and the grumpy charm of Warren Oates’ performance as the investigator make the subplot highly rewarding. Pulling all of these disparate elements together into a seamless whole is producer-director Bud Yorkin, a TV-comedy veteran best known as Norman Lear’s longtime producing partner; Yorkin employs unhurried pacing to showcase the ample charms of the cast and the screenplay.
It helps that composer Henry Mancini gives the movie a smooth lounge-music patina with a jaunty score of the type he regularly generated for Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther movies. It’s also noteworthy that O’Neal gives one of his best performances, slipping comfortably into the skin of a man who refuses to get stressed out by life, and that Bisset complements her remarkable beauty with a deft touch for banter. Plus, any movie with the good taste to feature Ned Beatty, Jill Clayburgh, John Hillerman, Michael Murphy, Austin Pendleton, and Gregory Sierra in supporting roles is obviously doing something right.
The Thief Who Came to Dinner: GROOVY