It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s going on in Russell Rouse’s The Thief and that’s certainly the point. This 1952 noir is mostly noted for its central conceit, described on the poster and in most of the promotion materials. As stated in excitable text, “not a word is spoken.” Rouse’s picture is indeed without dialogue, although sound does play a considerable role.
The screenplay by Rouse and Clarence Greene hints at being a Cold War thriller and plunks the protagonist in a tense situation, using the lack of discourse to intensify suspicion and avoid “soapboxing” a particular point of view. The Thief can be rather inert and getting to know characters or plot details is not on the menu.
Ray Milland stars as a nuclear physicist with the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington. He is given several cues by a mysterious man (Martin Gabel) to steal secrets from his workplace, like photographs of top secret documents. These secrets are then transmitted through a labyrinth of handlers.
All hell breaks loose when a canister of microfilm is intercepted after a handler is hit by a car. The FBI gets involved and starts to narrow the lens on some suspects, including the protagonist. This turns different spies against each other, resulting in heightened paranoia as the mysterious man tries to handle his contact and a leggy woman (Rita Gam) plays a key role.
Cinematographer Sam Leavitt incites the right measure of distrust. Even the shadows seem like they could be in on things and the city seems primed to draw Milland’s character into the depths. Whether he’s navigating the library and leaving a book in the right place or searching the blackness for someone, Leavitt’s lens is always watching and waiting.
Milland does a great job revealing information about his character with nominal source material. There are hints of sexual repression, like when he encounters Gam’s character, and there’s some semblance of routine that suggests he’s a middle-aged man caught up in sinister tradecraft. Like many protagonists in films noir, the spiral of fate has him trapped.
Much is made of the sound in The Thief, which sometimes draws attention to the device. Phones are particularly important, with Gabel’s character sending messages through sharp rings. This sets off the form of the pickup, where Gabel’s man drops an empty pack of cigarettes for Milland’s man to pick up. The clamour of the street is their only cover.
And there’s almost a quaintness when it comes to watching other characters, nameless and nearly faceless, as they trade packages and items in various setups. These people know what they’re doing and they’ve exacted the art of quiet delivery, although some exchanges are more unabashed than others.
Herschel Burke Gilbert’s score was nominated for an Academy Award and it is indeed a highlight, with immaculate atmospheric touches adding essential layering. The music doesn’t overwhelm, despite the temptation provided by the prevailing stunt, and that speaks to how much control Gilbert has over his compositions.
While The Thief is not without frustrations, it’s also not without rewards. Milland’s performance is really something and the overall construct is worth checking out, even if it does feel a bit gimmicky by the end. The suitably-named Gam is also a wonder and Rouse’s use of the actress exemplifies a sexual subtext that tentatively turns up the heat in this chilly Cold War noir.