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Savant Review:

The Thief

The Thief
Image Entertainment
1952 / B&W / 1:37 / 86m.
Starring Ray Milland, Martin Gabel, Harry Bronson, Rita Vale, Rex O'Malley, Rita Gam
Cinematography Sam Leavitt
Production Designer Joseph St. Amaad
Film Editor Chester W. Schaeffer
Original Music Herschel Burke Gilbert
Writing credits Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse
Produced by Clarence Greene and Harry M. Popkin
Directed by Russell Rouse

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A successful Anti-Red thriller, The Thief is also one of the best, mainly because it avoids obnoxious, argumentative political dialogue. In fact, it has no dialogue at all, a concept which United Artists was able to exploit for a marketing gimmick. Ray Milland does a one-man noir act as a tortured traitor, and the interesting direction contrasts expressive visuals with semidocumentary location work. It gets a bit slow, and the gimmick eventually turns out to be just that, but creatively it's still very interesting.


Nuclear Researcher Allan Fields (Ray Milland) is photographing top nuclear secrets at his laboratory in Washington, D.C., and handing the film off to foreign agents who smuggle them to New York City, and from there out of the country. When an accident blows Allan's cover, he's given an escape route on an outbound freighter. He waits for a telephone code, stranded in a miserable Manhattan room across the hall from an exotic and interested woman (Rita Gam) he dares not approach. He shakes the G-Man sent to tail him, to meet his final contact atop the Empire State building, only to find that the F.B.I. agent has followed her.

For all the hoopla, The Thief is really just a silent movie with sound effects. The story is kept to essentials, mainly following reluctant traitor Ray Milland around as he steals documents and furtively keeps his rendezvous with sullen, silent Martin Gabel (Marnie). Some sequences work exceedingly well, as when the camera holds a giant closeup of half of Milland's face while he waits to hear a signal on a telephone line. Likewise, the interest keeps up in some fairly repetitious scenes of microfilm handoffs, simply because we're curious to observe every detail. Without the redundant verbal exposition of a normal picture, 1952 audiences became participants in deciphering the action before them, which they apparently enjoyed. Some necessary information is imparted through views of telegrams, letters, and teletype printouts, but otherwise we're on our own, helped only by pointed direction and a very good musical score from Herschel Burke Gilbert.

This does result in a literal slowness to the narrative, as nothing can be ellipsed. The documentary aspect shows the capitol and New York City in a new light, as cities that oppress the hero, yet allow nasty agents to ply their trade in anonymity. As a film noir, The Thief is a fairly pure character study. We know nothing about Allan Fields beyond what we see him doing. We don't know specifically why he's betraying his country, or what got him started. When he smashes a trophy praising his nuclear research, the possiblity is advanced that he's a concientious objector. But this doesn't shield him from constant guilt, that leads to an overpowering remorse.

Being so literal about the mechanics of passing microfilm has its downside. If Ray Milland just dropped the stuff in the mail anonymously, the spies might have been avoided the screw-ups that bring them down. As it is, if Ray isn't being followed, all the cloak-n dagger stalking is unnecessary (and very suspicious-looking). If he is being followed, a blind man could see through his tricks. Milland's handling of the dramatics of his role is excellent, however, and his final anguish is finely calculated. (spoiler sentence) To the film's great credit, no sentimental notes are used at the conclusion, when Milland turns himself in.

We sympathize with Ray Milland's plight as an individual, apart from any specific political slant. Perhaps The Thief did so well because it offered topical spy thrills without the ideological hectoring of pictures like I Was A Communist, Big Jim McClain or My Son John. Instead of farcical Commie cells infiltrating unions and in general despoiling the American landscape, this picture was about plainwrap espionage of the Julius Rosenberg/Fuchs/Gold/Greenglass sort. Martin Gabel and Rex O'Malley (Camille; Midnight) look like stock traitors, but contact woman Rita Vale somewhat resembles Ethel Rosenberg. Milland's attempt to flee the authorities closely mirrors actions taken in real life by some of the Rosenbergs' associates.

This is yet another independent United Artists success that bears that distributor's name but long ago reverted to its producer, Harry Popkin, the man responsible for the excellent D.O.A.. The creative team of Russell Rouse & Clarence Greene went on to greater failure (The Oscar) and oddball success in films like U.F.O. and especially the Hugo Haas-like Wicked Woman, a misguided film with Beverly Michaels as a crafty homewrecker. She almost seems a spinoff of The Thief's Rita Gam character, a come-hither looker shoehorned into the story to add salt to Ray Milland's noir wounds. She's featured in a number of vavoom angles. If used in the original trailer, they probably did the heavy lifting for UA publicity. Rita Gam reportedly had a thin but highly visible career, with a big role in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings, and a marriage to Sidney Lumet, but Hollywood remembered her mostly as Grace Kelly's roommate. She attended the Monaco wedding and gave many interviews about her friend.

Image's DVD of The Thief is one of the better looking Wade Williams-possessed (as opposed to, 'owned') films Savant has seen. The source materials are 35mm and in excellent shape, and the sound is very clear. We can really appreciate cameraman Sam Leavitt's blend of docu techniques and low-key noir lighting. Only a steady sprinkling of negative dirt gets in the way of a perfect presentation. Perhaps when the technology becomes cheap enough, the relatively simple process of erasing this visual dandruff will be affordable to all ... right now even studios use it only on their top titles, and then sometimes over-use it, erasing other picture details.

The DVD carries no extras, and although the menu looked creative, Savant could not find the trick to advancing it. The design of the disc is very attractive. Wade Williams provides the liner notes, calling the film 'Hitchcockesque' and, 'a product of the Cold War era when Communists were infiltrating all phases of American life.' To Savant, that's as offensive as characterizing the '50s Civil Rights movement as the scheme of uppity blacks. Perhaps Mr. Williams meant to say, '... when it was thought that Communists were infiltrating all phases of American life', which is certainly true.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Thief rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 16, 2002

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