Film Noir Review: “The Thief”

“The Thief” (1952)

Starring Ray Milland, Martin Gabel and Rita Gam. Directed by Russell Rouse. From United Artists.

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The poster makes note of the film’s most unique feature.

The phone is ringing. The shrill sound echoes through the sparse Washington, DC apartment of nuclear physicist Allan Fields (Milland), who doesn’t answer it. It’s a signal and Fields gets up and goes for a walk. Mr. Bleek (Gabel) is also walking. And smoking. And littering. Fields notices and picks up Bleek’s garbage and takes it home with him. Once back in his apartment, Fields reads the discarded paper and his face clouds.

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Fields (Milland) listens to the dreaded ringing of the phone.
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Once a source of pride, his award now causes feelings of guilt.

The next day, Fields is at work at the Atomic Energy Commission. He sneaks into his supervisor’s office and photographs classified material, narrowly avoiding being discovered. He leaves the building with his canister of film and goes to the Library of Congress where he sees Mr. Bleek. Fields leaves the canister on a book shelf, Bleek picks it up and leaves. What follows is a series of hand-offs involving several agents until the film canister makes it’s way to the airport and out of the country.

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Fields reads his instructions from Bleek.
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Fields photographs secret documents.

During one of these hand-off operations, an agent is inadvertently struck and killed by a car. The police find the film on his person and develop it. Now, the jig is up and Fields is instructed to leave DC and head to a safe house in New York City. While there, Fields begins to break down, feeling the guilt of his actions. He causes the death of an FBI agent following him and completely unravels.

And all this happens without a single word of dialogue.

B movie studio Eagle-Lion Films produced and United Artists distributed this film that was made by the team of Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse; they both co-wrote the script and Greene produced. This team of men were responsible for several film noirs highlighted by D.O.A. (1950). They also worked in television, creating the noir series Tightrope and eventually won an Oscar for their screenplay for Pillow Talk – which is about as far from noir as you can get. They also made The Oscar (1966) featuring Tony Bennett in his only acting role.

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Almost caught.

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The Thief was Sam Leavitt’s first film as cinematographer. His technique here is pure noir, utilizing light and shadow effectively. He would go on to work on A Star is Born (1954), and The Man With the Golden Arm before winning an Academy Award for The Defiant Ones. He was nominated the two years following his win for Exodus and Anatomy of a Murder. Leavitt would go on to work for Desilu on I Love Lucy and in many notable films, working equally well in black and white and colour: Cape Fear, Diamond Head, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and two Matt Helm films.

Welshman Ray Milland stars as Allan Fields. All things considered, Milland actually had a middling career in Hollywood. He had appeared in several smaller productions before landing the role of Don Birnam in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend for which Milland won an Oscar and several other awards. After that, he went back to average films before making our film in 1952. Two years later, he took a stellar turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s striking Dial “M” for Murder with Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings. But beyond that, there are not many really notable films in his filmography; that’s not to say that Milland was not an excellent actor. He was, as The Thief can attest. Later, like many aging Hollywood actors, he made bonkers horror flicks like Frogs (“Cold, green skin against soft warm flesh!”) and The Thing With Two Heads (“They transplanted a white bigot’s head onto a soul brother’s body!”).

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Martin Gabel I talked about in my review of Fourteen Hours. Gabel was a stage and radio actor and a part of the Mercury Theatre who would go on to make three films with Frank Sinatra. Gabel – who’s name is spelled wrong in the closing credits of The Thief – is the only other actor of note in this film. The hairdresser went in an interesting direction with Gabel’s hair.

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Martin Gabel as Mr. Bleek.

Striking-looking Rita Gam makes her film debut as The Girl. Rita was born in Pittsburgh and is of Romanian heritage. My first thought was that someone had saddled her with a ridiculously obvious stage name. However, Rita’s father died when she was 4 and her mother remarried a man named…Gam. That’ll teach me. Rita made only a handful of films, King of Kings (with Milland) and Klute among them. She was best friends with Grace Kelly and served as her bridesmaid.

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Rita Gam as “The Girl”. Dish and MacGuffin.

Watching this film for the first time recently I kept checking the running time. “Ten minutes and no dialogue”, I remember saying. It was thrilling for me to watch this movie not knowing there was no dialogue. At all. None. And it’s terrible to have to ruin this element for those who haven’t seen the film but it’s an essential part of reviewing it. In my opinion, it works and doesn’t feel like a gimmick. Utilizing the same methods found in silent films, the players here are more than competent at expressing their feelings and their plight with facial expressions and body language. Milland particularly shows his feelings of fear and guilt so well that you are drawn in to what is happening to him. The deft camera work, the editing and the actors and where they are looking make it easy to follow what is happening.

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Speaking of camera work, Leavitt’s photography is in the best noir tradition. Fields’ apartment is a great living space for a bachelor but everything is grey and bleak. Some low angle shots reveal a high ceiling and yet it’s still made to feel claustrophobic. Many of the noir tropes are present with shadows used effectively. The location shoot, as it always does in film noir, lends authenticity to the proceedings. Also – as I always say with films like this – it is great to see the actual streets and buildings from the 1950’s. The film starts out in Washington and Georgetown and I can’t help thinking that I’ve seen some of these Georgetown locations used 30 years later in St. Elmo’s Fire; talk about genre mash-up.

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I feel like Rob Lowe and the gang drove down this very street 30 years later.
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Great shots of the Empire State Building.

Then we move on to New York City for more fascinating images. Manhattan streets, Times Square, Sardi’s Restaurant and the Empire State Building are not just interesting to see in all their mid-century glory but they comment on the action, as well. There’s a great montage near the end of the film when Fields walks the streets at the end of his rope. All of these buildings and cafés and the people enjoying them are shown. Fields’ eyes dart left and right, taking in all the carefree people and the fun diversions that mean nothing to him; he cannot participate in any of this. There could also be a profound statement being made. When Fields contemplates prosperous Manhattan and all the citizens of the US enjoying to the fullest the pursuit of happiness and it’s inherent freedoms, he feels overwhelming guilt at betraying his country. This crushing remorse prompts his final decision.

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America – in all it’s neon glory – deserves better.

As for the performances, I mentioned earlier that the players do well in expressing without dialogue what is happening; and not just the action but their thoughts, feelings and motivations. Ray Milland does an excellent job with his role. Without ineffectual words describing his situation, he makes us understand what he feels and what he’s going through. We may not be told the origins of how this all got started but his remorse is palpable through some cunning stage direction (smashing his award) but mostly through his pained expressions. The ringing phone is used effectively. This generally benign sound is made to be horrific in this film and Milland’s reaction to it’s shrill alarm drives home the point. As his character spirals, Milland makes us sorry for him, even if he got himself into this in the first place.

I kept waiting for a suggestion of blackmail; Fields was being made to do these things under threat of violence to his family, maybe. When that never comes, one could feel no pity for Fields. But by the end of the film Milland has you sympathizing with him as he realizes that he cannot live with his sins without paying the price for them.

This is an excellent film you should check out. You can buy the DVD on Amazon no sweat! It’s listed at $480! Check it out for free – while it lasts – here.

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