During one of the best scenes in Thieves, the film adaptation of Herb Gardner’s seriocomic play about a couple whose marriage is disintegrating, Sally Cramer (Marlo Thomas) attempts small talk with a would-be lover, quickly realizing how challenging it is to be cute and superficial after reaching adulthood. “I think men like young girls because their stories are shorter,” she quips. Moments later, Sally discovers that the man’s bedroom is located at the top of a ladder leading to a loft. “Jesus,” she exclaims, “it’s hard to make this look like an accident.” These snippets capture the sharp wit that makes Thieves worthwhile, despite the project’s muddy approach to storytelling, theme, and tone. Although Thieves effectively depicts the thousand slights that drive spouses apart, Gardner also burdens the piece with lyricism, metaphor, and whimsy, trying to parallel domestic issues with larger societal problems. For instance, the title has multiple meanings, referring not only to the actual robbers who prey upon the New York City apartment building where Sally lives her husband, but also to time, which steals people’s lives though the passage of hours, minutes, and seconds. The heady stuff feels artificial and pretentious, whereas the intimate material is crisp and humane.
When the story begins, Sally and Martin (Charles Grodin) have reached a marital impasse. She’s an effervescent delight with a deep social conscience and a wild imagination, but he’s become a dull conformist preoccupied with money and propriety. More than a decade into their union, they’ve managed to argue themselves into the early stages of a divorce. During the brief separation that ensues, Sally trysts with a swinger (John McMartin) whom she met in Central Park, and Larry makes time with a sexy neighbor (Ann Wedgworth). Also woven into the story are vignettes featuring Sally’s loudmouthed father (Irwin Corey), the Cramers’ eavesdropping neighbor (Hector Elizondo), and a teenaged criminal (Larry Scott).
The tone is erratic, with serious topics including abortion treated lightly while comparatively trite subjects including nostalgia are presented with operatic scope. Moreover, Gardner’s flights of fancy—both in terms of dialogue and plotting—add an element of stylized satire, which clashes with the realism of the scenes involving the Cramers’ spats. Music is another weak spot, because scenes are connected via chirpy flute compositions and nonsense ragtime songs. (VIPs Shel Silverstein and Jule Style penned the tunes.) All of these incompatible elements produces a lack of focus that detracts from the charm of the best dialogue, and from the skill of the performances. Grodin’s mixture of deadpan moments and emotional outbursts is modulated nicely, Thomas adds grown-up world-weariness to the sexy/spunky vibe she perfected on That Girl, and the supporting players lend diverse flavors. Incidentally, famed choreographer/director Bob Fosse plays a small part as a junkie who tries to rob Grodin’s character.