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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.