The Thief (1952)

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Ray Milland is a traitor selling secrets to the enemy in this silent thriller. 

Here’s something different: Ray Milland not speaking one word in an 85 minute film made in 1952. He plays a renowned physicist working at the Atomic Energy Commision, who steals and passes top secret documents to some generic foreign state. It begins as Milland, alone in his apartment, lies awake in bed and lets the phone ring, listening to what is clearly a meaningful number of rings. Milland then goes for a walk and picks up a crumpled piece of paper that a man (Martin Gabel) has dropped on the sidewalk. Those are Milland’s instructions. What follows is a detailed look at the process through which Milland gets microfilm photos of government secrets, passes the tiny canister to Gabel at the library, and the path the film takes from there, hand to hand, from courier to fellow agent, left in a phone booth, dropped into a purse at Macy’s on a park bench, and finally delivered to a flight to Cairo.

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That mission completed, Milland comes home and spends the quiet time hating himself, drinking, staring at his mantle full of awards in disgust. Then the phone rings again, summoning him to his next task. This time, though, he doesn’t respond and seems to have decided he will no longer be a traitor. The next morning when Milland goes to work he finds Gabel at the entrance, glaring, angered and presumably reminding Milland of some terrible consequences that will befall him or loved ones (if he has any) for his disobedience. So that night Milland gives in and goes out to pick up yet another crumpled paper which repeats the whole process. Only this time there are several close calls in Milland’s part of the chain, a total break when one of the couriers down the line is killed and the microfilm falls into the hands of the FBI, who inevitably put the finger on Milland.

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The Thief is like the silent, procedural version of a spy movie, a documentary style study of the methods and logistics of getting information to and from the enemy. Once the FBI narrows down their suspects to Milland and a handful of his colleagues we also get the law’s side of the procedure, as they shadow the players involved, try to intercept and decode messages and figure out Milland’s next steps, tasks and drop locations.

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With no dialogue to speak, Milland has a challenging job to do and he does it well; he can only show us, and more importantly try not to overdo, things like shame, remorse, desperation, terror, apprehension, guilt and hopelessness. He’s tortured, self-loathing and yet resigned to the life he’s created for himself. In one sequence as suspenseful as anything Hitchcock did, Milland breaks into a fellow scientist’s office to copy documents, and he’s almost finished when the colleague returns and takes his sweet time picking up some random items. Milland frantically looks for a place to hide before crouching behind a wing chair, and is horrified to see that he left his spy camera in plain view on the man’s desk.

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A similar situation happens at the library exchange when Milland chooses a clever spot in the card catalog to leave the microfilm for Gabel, and then nearly has a nervous breakdown watching a woman hover around that very drawer for what seems an eternity. Milland does so well with scenes like those, expressing a full rollercoaster ride of nerves and abject fear. It’s very similar to what he did two years later in Dial M for Murder, working out that business with the mixed up keys, scenes in which he so skillfully communicated a thought process, the gears turning, and the dawning realization of how badly he’s misjudged and messed up. Here, he even gets a big breakdown scene as he waits in a seedy hotel room for his final order; he passes some time eyeing the alluring, phone-hogging, scantily clad Rita Gam next door, but soon he feels the walls closing in on him and his life falling apart and he totally freaks out.

But it’s not all grimacing or mime either, Milland gets lots of noirish action scenes as he navigates dark streets, climbs up to rooftops to escape surveillance and visits landmarks in Washington D.C. (guilty moment there as he tries to avoid eye contact with the Capitol building) and New York City. The photography and locations are very interesting and presented in realistic style, among crowds of what look to be regular people at the train stations, Empire State building observation deck, libraries and so on, much in the style of The Naked City. You even get a chase reminiscent of that movie, as a persistent FBI agent corners Milland and chases him up high above New York.

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It’s a tricky and risky gimmick, having such a charming and articulate star never speak in a story about secrets and lies, but director Russell Rouse (The Fastest Gun Alive, House of Numbers, writer of D.O.A.) capitalizes on that star’s intensity and ability to keep you interested, while telling the story with methods and universal gestures of betrayal, evasion and pursuit put to good music. Not only did it work for me, I really liked it. Granted, I’m a big Milland fan but I think it would be as absorbing with any actor as good. After I got over wondering how a 1950’s silent cold war espionage movie could be done, and despite some slower parts (sometimes you think that phone will ring as long as the one in Once Upon a Time in America), there was enough plot, activity and good acting to get past the gimmick and get involved in the story.

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26 thoughts on “The Thief (1952)”

  1. Never heard of this one. Sounds very interesting. Wonder how it ever got made. No dialogue would,I Imagine, have put a lot of people off. Not to mention financing for such a project. So congrats to producer Harry Popkin.
    Look forward to seeing it, thanks to your review.

    1. I’m glad you mentioned Popkin because I forgot. Produced a few cool noirs. High concept and good for Milland fans. I would think that even if it doesn’t work for someone it would still be of interest just to see how they do it. Thanks 🙂

  2. This sounds quite intriguing! I loved him in Dial M For Murder, seeing him think and plan without an extreme amount of dialogue in that one to explain what he was doing at certain times.

    1. That’s right, I love him in Dial M so if you do then I think you’d enjoy watching him do a lot of the same type of acting, only “more so.” Thanks for reading

  3. We’re in agreement again – I really like this film and think it works very well indeed. On paper it sounds like it might be a bit of a bore but Milland’s performance and Rouse’s direction are excellent. The absence of dialogue actually increases the tension and somehow adds a touch of realism.

    1. You really do get caught up in it and I forgot about studying how it works very quickly. The docu-noir look of it is great and you’re right about it being realistic and fitting for the situations, the couriers wouldn’t speak to each other anyway and the FBI would certainly follow you quietly. So there’s nothing that strains credibility. Nice bit of acting for Milland and some very suspenseful parts. Thanks 🙂

  4. I’ll have to get to this one. I know It’s around here in the pile. Milland in the forties and fifties was generally solid. I like the fact that it’s a bit different and stretches the medium.

  5. You make this sound very intriguing, thanks for the review! I’m a fan of Milland too, so this is another film for my wish/watch list.

    I wonder if Milland liked the no-sound idea here so well, that it influenced his later (excellent) directorial effort “A Man Alone?” I think it’s about half-an-hour in that before his character speaks a line.

    1. That’s interesting, I have A Man Alone but haven’t seen it yet so I’m moving that one up 🙂 I could watch Milland read the phone book but trying to be objective, he does a fine job here and makes you feel the range of things he goes through, lots of sticky situations. I’d say it’s a must for his fans, even if you end up not liking it, it’s still a unique experiment you should check out. I found it on youtube. Thanks!

      1. Oh yes, even if I don’t care for the technique, I’ll be glad to see Ray. Thanks for the tip about youtube; and I hope you enjoy “A Man Alone” when you get a chance to see it 🙂 After a long wait, you do get to hear his wonderful voice in that one.

        Milland directed and starred in another film for Republic, “Lisbon.” I have a copy, but haven’t seen it yet. You’ve reminded me that I should move it up! It also stars Maureen O’Hara, Claude Rains, and Francis Lederer.

        1. Will watch A MAN ALONE real soon, I just pulled it this morning and it’s one that Laura sent me 🙂 small world of movie/Ray fans. Making a note for LISBON as well, thank you! Leave suggestions anytime, love to get tips from people who like the same type things. Thanks again!

  6. I’ve not heard of this movie and now want to see it! I’m writing about The Lost Weekend for the Oscar Blogathon earlier next week, and much of the scenes you describe of Milland, and the range of emotions he displayed, could also be sited in TLW, for which he won his Best Actor Oscar. What’s amazing to me in my research is that Milland didn’t drink alchohol! He had to go to the novel’s author to find out how to act as a hopeless addict, and spending a day and night at Bellevue’s Drunk Ward helped, too.

    1. TLW is one heavy downbeat movie and kudos to Milland for doing a good job playing that without having “direct” experience! Goes to show what a great actor he was. The nice thing here is you get a big range of similar emotions without the depressing parts of TLW. Lots of tight close ups too so you can get the full effect of the acting. Thanks!

  7. It’s fate, Fergie, Kismet, as they said in FOUL PLAY, Kristina! I was just thinking about THE THE THIEF, even about to write about it, and bless you, you somehow read my mind! You may recall I LOVE the Popkin Brothers from their other great work, so you’ve got me smiling! Thanks, my friend, and have a great weekend to you and yours! 😀

    1. I knew you were a big Popkin Fresh fan from before, I actually thought of that post you did when his name came on during the credits! Great minds think alike and etc. Do the post because everyone sees, likes and describes different things in the same movies and I’d love to read it! Cool movie. Thanks for reading

  8. Wow, I had no idea that a silent film like this was made in the 50s. Great review, Kristina – I’d really like to see Ray Milland in this one. I’ll miss his wonderful voice, but sounds as if he does a great job here without it.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. It’s a feat to pull this off and make it interesting to a more modern audience. Love his voice too but you get plenty Ray in other ways to make up for it. Easy to find on Youtube if you’re interested!

  9. This is a fascinating film, and Milland is great in it – even though the non-dialogue feels gimmick at times, it also feels right for the film. By the 1950s Milland seemed to be trying to do new things (such as playing a villain in Dial M for Murder) and stretching himself (he also began directing). Really an overlooked actor.

    1. Right, in a spy movie it makes sense there would be little talking, things done in silence, etc. They wring the most out of glances, dark streets and suspicious looks and so on, like I say nothing feels unrealistic with no talking. Milland is definitely not overlooked here, I’m huge fan and love his work. Thanks for reading.

  10. Checked it out on Youtube. Good copy. Had a lot of good things in it,especially the Empire State chase ,positively Hitchcockian when the FBI guy suddenly grabs Ray’s ankle. I jumped!
    But I feel I would have got so much more out of it with dialogue.
    Without words, we can only guess at his motivation. it’s all exasperating guesswork on the viewer’s part.
    Great part for Ray Milland and he delivers solidly.

    1. That’s a good point, makes you wonder about how he got into it. Agree about the Hitchcock touches, I found that in a couple scenes, and that Empire State bldg chase was very well done. Thanks for leaving your thoughts on it!

  11. It’s an intriguing film and I think the gimmick works very well. It’s integrated into the film and thus doesn’t seem as noticeable as obvious gimmicks like Robert Montgomery’s first-person THE LADY IN THE LAKE.

    1. I agree, with espionage and secrecy, the silence fits and with the procedural aspect and the chase it works really well. Thanks for reading!

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