This stylish caper film owes a lot to The Thomas Crown Affair. Webster (O'Neal) is bored with his job as a computer programmer in the bustling metropolis of Houston, Texas. He decides to quit and become a jewel thief - The Chess Burgler - he leaves chess pieces and a note with a chess move at each of his jobs. His first caper is the Henderling home, where he secures not only jewelry and cash, but some incriminating documents, which he uses to blackmail Henderling (Charles Cioffi) into introducing him into society. At a party Henderling gives he meets Laura (Bisset), with whom he begins a relationship. She becomes his accomplice, helping him by throwing parties to get people out of their homes, providing alibis for him and helping him plan and execute his capers. The wrench in the works is Dave (Warren Oates), a pensive insurance investigator who suspects Webster, but can't prove that he's the theif. Dave dogs Webster's tail, tries to set him up and even enlists the help of a chess expert (Austin Pendleton) to publicly challenge him to a game, which is played out in a newspaper. As the stakes get bigger, will Webster have the nerve to continue with Dave there waiting for his first misstep?
This film has a light charm that is missing from most films today. The performances by all the cast members are especially good, but the highlight - as in Thomas Crown, is the relationship between O'Neal and Oates, who does a terrific, subtle turn as the insurance agent. Ned Beatty as the fence and Jill Clayburgh as O'Neal's ex wife also turn in stellar performances. Look for a wacky costume ball scene with Houston's elite dressed up in space costumes.
This film has yet to make it to DVD. It's available on VHS and you can watch it in full on StageVu.com above. The score by Henry Mancini is also available.
Obscurity factor: 7 (not on DVD, available to watch online, not well known, but loved by most who remember it)