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Series / It Takes a Thief (1968)

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"Look, Al, I'm not asking you to spy, I'm just asking you to steal."
Noah Bain

It Takes a Thief was an American television series that aired on ABC between 1968 and 1970. It followed the exploits of master thief and Con Man Alexander Mundy (Robert Wagner). Facing a long sentence in prison, he's given an offer by Noah Bain (Malachi Throne), the cop who caught him and is now the head of the SIA, an American intelligence agency. Mundy will be released from jail if he agrees to provide his unique skills to the government. The series served as a prototype for similar shows, such as White Collar, that also featured a Loveable Rogue.

Not to be confused with the identically-named Reality Show that ran on the Discovery Channel between 2005 and 2007. That series has its own entry.


It Takes a Trope:

  • Always a Bigger Fish: Even though Al is a master thief, he readily admits that his father, Alistair, is even better.
  • Angry Guard Dog: Al deals with them in a few episodes.
  • Animal Assassin: Al finds a scorpion in his shower in "The Scorpio Drop".
  • As Himself: Racing legend Mario Andretti in "The Steal Driving Man".
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: One of Al's frequent methods of theft. For example, he'll show up saying he's been assigned to evaluate the security around the target of the week. The guards usually buy this, giving Al the chance to get vital information for that episode's caper.
  • Berserk Button: Normally, Al is cool and unflappable during his missions. However, he doesn't react well when children or his friends are threatened.
    • In the first season episode "The Radomir Minature", when Al actually threatens an enemy agent holding a little girl captive.
    • In the second season story "The Galloping Skin Game", Al angrily quits the SIA and demands to be sent back to prison when he mistakenly thinks Noah has set up friendly adversary Nick Grobbo to be killed.
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    • Also, Al doesn't take it well when Noah asks him to kidnap a Child Prodigy so they can force his older sister to divulge secret information in "A Matter of Gray Matter". Fortunately, the kid is not only willing to go with Al, but he knows the secret Noah wanted to learn in the first place.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Gino from "A Sour Note". He seems to be just a Flamboyant Gay Drama Queen hairdresser, but he's actually a ruthless assassin working for a Nazi war criminal.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: During the first season, when Al isn't on a mission, he's kept under house arrest and constant video surveillance.
  • Blackmail: In "The Bill is in Committee", a respected U.S. senator is set up for it by an agent of a foreign dictatorship. Stopping the plot is one of the few times Al actually volunteers for a mission.
  • Bookends: Wally Cox plays an airline passenger in both the first and final episodes.
  • Boxed Crook
  • Call-Back: In "When Thieves Fall In", Al reminds Noah how, on an earlier mission ("It Takes One to Know One"), Noah had briefly met "Charlie" Brown. And how she stole his wallet.
  • Catchphrase: For Al, it's, "Oh, you're beautiful!" He uses it either sarcastically (to Noah or Wally when they force him to do a dangerous caper) or honestly (to 99.9% of the women he meets).
  • Chess Motifs: "The Great Chess Gambit", strangely enough. The episode features Al getting into a chess match with the Villain of the Week, and several comparisons are made between their chess moves and the activities of the American and Russian agents vying for that episode's MacGuffin.
  • Child Prodigy: When it comes to crime, Al was this. In "It Takes One to Know One", he says he'd been spotting cops and government agents when he was six years old. Understandable, given his Family Business.
  • Classy Cat-Burglar: Al is a Rare Male Example.
  • Clear My Name: The plot of "Beyond a Treasonable Doubt", in which Al is framed as a traitor.
  • Cool Old Guy: How Alistair is depicted. In "The Second Time Around", he single-handedly captures a Cold Sniper who had tried to assassinate him.
  • Cool Old Lady:
    • Duchess Christina from "The Lay of the Land", who may or may not have written some Compromising Memoirs.
    • Bessie Grindel, one of Al's criminal mentors, in "Touch of Magic".
  • Complaining About Rescues They Don't Like: The first season episode "When Boy Meets Girl".
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: "Get Me to the Revolution on Time" has several of them doing an Enemy Mine team-up with a Castro-like guerrilla general. The deal is that the businessmen will help the general take over his country, then be rewarded with exclusive mining rights.
  • Creative Closing Credits: Instead of the standard Closing Credits sequence, "To Sing a Song of Murder" excerpts a performance by that episode's guest stars, singing group the 5th Dimension.
  • Dead Man Walking: In the third season story "Saturday Night in Venice", Al is poisoned by Russian agents and offered the antidote in exchange for an item he'd previously stolen.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Al, especially to anyone from the SIA.
  • Death in the Clouds: "Project 'X'" is Ten Little Murder Victims on a plane, complete with a Green Aesop.
  • Distaff Counterpart: Charlene "Charlie" Brown (Susan Saint James), an equally skilled, though rather kooky female thief/con artist. She shows up in four episodes (two in the first season, two in the third).
  • Doesn't Like Guns:
    • In "It Takes One to Know One", Al says he never carries a gun. He feels it's unprofessional and not worth the trouble it could cause.
    • Seemingly subverted in "Locked in the Cradle of the Keep", when Al actually gets into a gunfight with SIA agents, including Noah. However, it turns out to be part of a caper in which Al has to look like a traitor.
  • Downer Ending: The third season episode "Flowers from Alexander".
  • Dying Clue: The title phrase in "38-23-36". The dying SIA agent says this instead of revealing who the spy is because he doesn't know if the person he's talking to is the killer or not. It turns out to be the coordinates of Athens, the spy's home town.
  • Dysfunction Junction: In "The Family", Al infiltrates an oil billionaire's household because one of them is selling petrol to the Russians. All the family members are neurotics, except for a young girl who befriends Al.
  • Easily Forgiven: Angela Peters from "The Scorpio Drop". She tries to kill Al because she thinks he's the Phony Psychic who drove her mother to suicide. As soon as Al tells her that he's only impersonating the psychic, she becomes his Girl of the Week.
  • Episode on a Plane: "Project 'X'".
  • Evil Counterpart: George Palmer from "To Steal a Battleship". He and Al were childhood friends who went into thievery together, but George is much more willing to use violence and threats to get what he wants.
  • Evolving Credits: Each season has a different title sequence, with a variation during the third season for when Fred Astaire was guest-starring. Each sequence included a progressively jazzier arrangement of Dave Grusin's Opening Theme.
  • Expy: The SIA for the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Fake Defector: Al in "Locked in the Cradle of the Keep".
  • Family Business:
    • Alastair Mundy (Fred Astaire), Alexander Mundy's father, was also a thief.
    • In one first season episode, Alexander says he's, in fact, a third generation thief.
    • In the series' first regular episode ("It Takes One to Know One"), "Charlie" Brown mentions that she's also a third generation thief, several episodes before Al does.
  • Frame-Up: Happens to Al in "The Artist Is for Framing" and "Beyond a Treasonable Doubt".
  • Friend to All Children: Several episodes feature Al befriending children in bad situations. Examples include "The Radomir Miniature", "A Matter of Gray Matter" and "The Family".
  • Ghost Town: The setting of "Fortune City".
  • Government Agency of Fiction: The SIA (Secret Intelligence Agency).
  • Green Aesop: The series' final episode, "Project 'X'".
  • Hallucinations: During "Beyond a Treasonable Doubt", a wounded Al suffers a lengthy, surreal Nightmare Sequence in which he imagines he's on stage at a theater, with his SIA bosses (who think he's a traitor) judging and insulting him from the balconies.
  • I Am Very British: "Charlie" Brown uses a (sort of) posh English accent as part of an impersonation in "When Thieves Fall In". This is after she tries a memorably awful Cockney accent.
  • Identical Stranger: The reason Al gets Noah to spring "Charlie" Brown from prison in "When Thieves Fall In".
  • Insane Admiral: In the third-season episode "Situation Red", a USAF Major (played by Earl Holliman) becomes dangerously paranoid due to a bad reaction to (non-anabolic) steroids. He becomes convinced that a Strategic Air Command test is an actual war situation and takes control of the bombers.
  • Lawman Gone Bad: The villain in "The Artist Is for Framing" is a police inspector with a perfect record who's about to retire. He's obsessed with capturing Al as a final triumph, so he commits robberies using Al's techniques and frames him for the crimes.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: The final scene from the last episode, "Project 'X'".
  • Loveable Rogue: Mundy was an unabashed con-artist and thief, but was clearly the hero protagonist.
  • Midseason Replacement: The show premiered in January 1968.
  • Moment Killer: A Running Gag during the first season. Several episodes open with Noah walking in on Al as he's just starting to put the moves on his female SIA minder for that week. This gag was dropped in the second season, when Al is no longer under constant surveillance.
  • Murder by Mistake: In "Flowers from Alexander", SIA agents kill Laurie, mistakenly believing her to be a traitor. The killers are later seen paying their respects at her grave.
  • Musical Trigger: In the third-season story "To Sing a Song of Murder", the song "One Less Bell to Answer" serves this purpose.
  • No Name Given:
    • "The Blonde" from "To Steal a Battleship".
    • "The Man" from the last episode, "Project 'X'".
  • Noodle Incident: Even though "Charlie" Brown only appears four times in the series, she and Al refer to several other times they've met/worked together/been friendly adversaries.
  • Outdated Outfit: The Nehru jackets and love beads Al sometimes wore in the first two seasons haven't aged well.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Some of Al's disguises fall under this trope.
  • Pie in the Face: How Bessie Grindel gets revenge on a former lover who betrayed her decades before in "Touch of Magic".
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Al runs into several of these throughout the series; usually they're his fellow thieves and con-artists, either working for themselves or employed by the bad guys.
    • One example of this is Nick Grobbo (Ricardo Montalbán), a high-class fence who shows up a couple of times. While he genuinely likes Al and would prefer that he simply stay out of his affairs, Nick threatens to kill Al if he should try to louse up one of his deals.
  • Punch! Punch! Punch! Uh Oh...: Happens in "The Thingamabob Heist", when Al tries to subdue Nick's henchman (played by basketball great Bill Russell). To his credit, it only takes one punch for Al to realize he's in trouble.
  • Put on a Bus: Noah Bain vanishes without explanation, beyond a couple of brief mentions, and isn't seen in the third season.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Noah Bain varied between this and being a real hard-case, especially during the first season. Suspiciously Similar Substitute Wally Powers was usually this during the third season.
    • Subverted during the third season with Devon and Mr. Jack, who occasionally supervised Al and seemed to have little regard for him at all.
  • Reluctant Hero: Mundy only agrees to take the job to get out of jail.
    • Subverted on a couple of occasions. For example, in "The Radomir Minature" Al actually volunteers to rescue a little girl (the daughter of a defecting scientist) being held captive behind the Iron Curtain.
  • Retcon: Originally, Noah was portrayed as the only cop who had ever caught Al, which he used as a way to recruit Al for the SIA. In the third season, after Noah was Put on a Bus, this was changed to where Wally Powers was also a former cop who'd helped Noah bust Al in the beginning.
  • Retool: There were several throughout the series:
    • During the first season, Al was given a big, well-appointed house outside of Washington, D.C. to live in (and be kept under survelliance) when not working. In the second season, he had an expensive bachelor apartment in town (without the surveillance).
    • For several episodes in the third season, Al's base of operations was in Italy, though he'd later move back to the D.C. apartment.
    • The biggest Retool was in the third season when his father, Alistair, arranges for Al to get a full pardon, to be no longer under the threat of prison, and be asked, rather than ordered, to do jobs for the SIA.
  • Scenery Porn: The opening episodes of the third season, filmed and set in Italy, featured a lot of this.
  • Self-Disposing Villain: The episode "38-23-36" features one. A Russian agent rigs the shower in Al's hotel room so that it'll electrocute him. One morning when Al is about to use the shower, Noah comes in to brief him and discovers the Russian hiding under the bed. The ensuing fistfight ends with the agent literally stumbling into his own death trap.
  • Spooky Séance: A medium holds one to contact Marilyn's spirit in "To Sing a Song of Murder." It doesn't work, possibly because Marilyn is Faking the Dead. The scene invokes the "Paul Is Dead" controversy; a poster of The Beatles is hanging on the wall, and the camera zooms in on Paul McCartney's face twice.
  • Stock Footage:
    • "The Steal-Driving Man", in which Al is pressed into service as a race driver, has plenty of it from actual races.
    • In "Project 'X'", it's used to show worldwide ecological disaster, as a justification for murder.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Wally Powers (Edward Binns), who takes over as Al's main SIA boss in the third season, replacing Noah Bain.
  • Swapped Roles: In "Turnabout", Al breaks his leg just before his latest assignment, which forces Noah to do the job while Al talks him through it.
  • Ten Little Murder Victims: "Project 'X'" sets this venerable plot on a plane.
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible: An In-Universe example. In the second season episode "A Case of Red Turnips", Al has to steal a pop art film containing top secret information. During the heist, the film is inadvertently ruined. The ruined film, consisting of random splotches of color, is screened for an audience and hailed as a cinematic masterpiece.
  • Vehicular Sabotage: Used to commit murder in "The Thingamabob Heist".
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: In the last episode ("Project 'X'"), a pro-environmental group starts killing a group of nuclear scientists for neglecting to focus on repairing Earth's ecological damage. Al even says he agrees with their basic premise, though certainly not their actions.
  • Worthy Opponent: Noah and Al consider each other this, even after they start working on the same side.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Al is forced to do this in "38-23-36" when attacked by a female spy who's trying to sell a valuable microdot to the Russians.