Jackie R. Johnson | Mountain City, TN | 06/06/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
""The Thief," a moody and atmospheric noir masterpiece, is one of the most thoroughly engrossing espionage movies I have ever seen. The plot is intense and thrilling, the black and white cinematography visually stunning, the acting superb. The story revolves around a nuclear physicist (Ray Milland) who is also a spy. Torn by guilt and doubt and sinking deeper and deeper into dispair as FBI agents close in on him, he is forced into making a terrifying choice. All without a single word of dialogue.The movie succeeds mainly because of the brilliant acting ability of Ray Milland. His performance, which owes much of its flavour to his Oscar winning role in "The Lost Weekend," is quite probably his best ever. Dialogue would have destroyed this movie because its atmosphere thrives on the solitude and loneliness of spies and their world.I have read many reviews that mention that "The Thief" leaves unclear the political convictions of the protagonist as well as the name of the country for which he actually works. Why the emphasis on this I do not understand since the movie intentionally leaves so many things unclear (i.e.: Ray Milland is the only character whose name we learn). I feel that this works decidedly to the movies' advantage. Isn't that the very nature of espionage?"
The next voice you hear...
Steven Hellerstedt | 02/27/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I may be the first person in fifty years who didn't know the gimmick when I sat down to watch THE THIEF. At least I didn't for the first eight minutes or so. Then I checked the back of the dvd jacket and saw that THE THIEF contained no dialogue. That explained things. Relaxed, I sat back and found myself enjoying it more and more.
It begins very slowly. Nuclear physicist Ray Milland is selling secrets to a foreign power. The movie spends a good chunk of time showing us what he's doing, who he's doing it with, and how it's done. A picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, but a line or two of dialogue really helps to move a plot along. Without words, but with ambient sounds, a modern acting technique (circa 1952), a vital, Oscar-nominated score by Herschel Burke Gilbert and an artful acting job by Milland the point is made. Milland is by turns frightened, apprehensive, anxious. And things are going to get worse.
There are limitations to a movie with no dialogue, or title cards, or even the ever-helpful note. It's not until the movie is nearly an hour old that we finally get to take a peek over a Fed's shoulder to read a teletyped message. Of course, by then we're pros at reading the silent action and the typed message isn't even that helpful. We'd figured it out two scenes ago. Worse, for the movie-goer, is the introduction of the Rita Gam character (`The Girl' in the credits.) A tenant in a low-rent apartment building Milland spends some time in, Gam gets to arch her eyebrows fetchingly a time or two, and do great justice to her surname in a toenail painting scene, but her scenes with Milland simply don't work without dialogue.
No dialogue may taketh away, but it also giveth. THE THIEF develops a definite feeling of isolation and alienation through its silence. Director Russell Rouse makes great use of New York locations - the public library, the upper reaches of the Empire State Building being among the notables - and unique camera angles - a ceiling-eye-view of Milland pacing in a cramped room, a vertigo inducing camera shot from above characters on a observation deck in the Empire State Building.
I liked THE THIEF very much. The Girl scenes and the ending may leave a bit to be desired, but only a bit. Overall, I found the movie fascinating and very enjoyable.
Steven Hellerstedt | 06/08/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Ray Milland proves again what an excellent and diverse actor he was in THE THIEF, one of the most interesting and unique movies it has been my pleasure to watch. The fact that there was no dialog seemed to dissapear as I became absorbed in the story. I think it was excellent."
Voiceless in Manhattan
Glenn A. Buttkus | Sumner, WA USA | 01/24/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Director Russell Rouse was best known in Hollywood as a terrific screen writer in the late 1940's and into the 50's-60's. He wrote screenplays for 18 films. He won an Oscar for his script for PILLOW TALK (1959). He had written D.O.A. (1950), another interesting shift in thriller perspective. [He also wrote the screenplay for the modern 1988 remake of D.O.A.] His first directorial effort was THE WELL (1951), and then he sat at the creative helm for THE THIEF (1952). Interestingly, this hot shot screen writer picked a topic that included the challenge of silence. He wrote the script and directed the film. A bit of a maverick, he only directed 11 films in his career, 1951-1967, which included THE FASTEST GUN ALIVE (1956), with Glenn Ford, and ended up with THE OSCAR (1966), with Stephen Boyd.
Except for Charlie Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS (1931), THE THIEF (1952) was the first film to use fully synchronized sound, and yet did not have a single word or line of dialogue. Chaplin created what probably was the "last silent movie". Mel Brooks fans were delighted and a bit perplexed when he released SILENT MOVIE (1976), containing only one word of dialogue spoken by the recently deceased world renowned Mime--Marcel Marceau. THE THIEF was not very well received at the box office, being considered a "gimmick" film. Perhaps, though, it was far more than that.
Ray Milland played award-winning physicist Allen Fields. We are introduced to him just as he was being "contacted" by his foreign agent compeers. In a dark apartment, a dial phone rings three times. A man lies fully clothed on the bed, listening. After a few moments it rings three more times, and then stops. Milland rises reluctantly, visibly agitated, conflicted, and unsettled. He walks the dark streets of Washington D.C. until he met his "contact" (Martin Gabel). The contact crumples up a cigarette package and drops it on the sidewalk, and then walks away. Fields stoops and scoops up his "orders".
Director Rouse lets the story play out like Hitchcock-lite, much of the action happening without explication--not even some form of silent explanation. Fields, apparently "successful" as a GS Civil Servant scientist, lived in a very modest apartment, alone. There were no photographs around of a wife or a family; just a physics award plaque on the mantle. What country was Fields spying for? Did he begin spying for the extra cash, and if so why did he appear to be so conflicted? Was his wife or family, if they existed, being held hostage, and he was being forced to spy? Was he from a "progressive" family background, with socialist roots sprouting out of the Depression? We can only guess and surmise.
We soon witness Fields at his government office with the Atomic Energy Commission building in Washington, D.C.--snapping tiny microfilm photos of "top secret" documents. As he wandered the cold hallways, and no one ever greeted him, or paid him much heed, there was a wonderful TWILIGHT ZONE feeling of isolation. The drop zone for the microfilm was the D.C. public library; a cavernous edifice that dwarfed all who prowled about its voluminous numerous aisles of shelves--a perfect place of silence, where people did not stare or care. We watch as Fields places the canister, and Gabel picks it up, and soon the diminutive canister is transferred from one "cell member" to another, and finally one of them boards a plane bound for Cairo.
Lo and behold, the next drop and transfer of secrets goes awry. One of the nefarious couriers was killed crossing a busy street, while apparently day dreaming and the city cops confiscated the "evidence". Soon those great patriots, those zealous Commie-haters and hunters, F.B.I. agents, get involved and lickety-split fast they begin closing in on the spy ring. Fields watches helplessly as an aged colleague he has stolen secrets from is arrested and taken away.
Fields feared that he will be next to be apprehended, so he appealed for help, and his brothers in espionage provided him with a car (a '52 Chev business coupe like I drove in high school), and he drove it traveling light to New York City. Those shots of a modestly cluttered freeway covered with vintage cars were nostalgic beyond measure. He rented a seedy room near the Waterfront. Soon he is contacted, a fake passport and passage is provided for him on a freighter headed for the Middle East. The public phone hanging on the wall in the hallway was integral to Fields; his touchstone. But he found that he had a neighbor who used the phone a lot too, a sultry and sexy young woman (Rita Gam). She, at first, seemed to give him come-on glances, but when he stared at her a little too lasciviously, she slammed her door in his gaze--another loose thread in this plot that only lived in the moment.
Fields met an operative on the 88th floor of the Empire State Building, the observatory level. He was unaware that the operative was being shadowed by an F.B.I. agent (Harry Bronson). The agent notices Fields reading his "instructions", and a chase ensues. Up the steep stairs they raced, with the younger man closing in on the aging and puffing Fields. They climbed higher and higher, until Fields in desperation climbed up the final ladder and emerged above the 102nd floor, on the very top of what was at that time the world's highest skyscraper. The camera work kicked in my latent vertigo. My feet ached and my head swam watching the scene. I half expected King Kong to peek around the corner, or to see WWI biplanes appear in the sky, diving down to spray machine gun bullets. Fields was horrified as the F.B.I. agent reached out and grabbed the physicist's ankle. As a reflex, Fields stomped on the agent's hand, and then kicked down at his head. The agent fell the 20' to the steel deck, breaking his neck. Later, safe in his room, Fields cried out in anguish when he fully realized he had murdered someone. That cry and two previous loud screams were the only human "sounds" we were treated to. The only dialogue was the musical score. Even at the great crowded train station, and on the busy pedestrian-strewn streets, we never heard even the murmur of ambient dialogue; heightening the sense of immersion in an alien landscape.
On the plus side the film sported a strong performance by Ray Milland, giving new depth to the meaning of "inner monologue". This was just a few years after his Oscar-winning performance in THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), and a couple of years before he worked with Hitchcock in DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954). THE THIEF is a unique kind of hybrid movie, part noir thriller, part Red-scare government-sanctioned anti-Communist piece of proper patriotic propaganda--and something else, something mute and alien, something still born unto it, fresh and strange, that becomes both irritating and fascinating. We hear a dynamic musical score written by Hershel Burke Gilbert, a fledgling composer plucked from noir predecessors; a score that had to "speak" and convey emotions, underscore events, a score that was nominated for an Academy Award. We enjoyed well thought out and executed cinematography by lenser Sam Leavitt, returning to work after an odd 17 year hiatus, providing us with a moody noir shadow world, where the darkness swallowed everything, with much of the action taking place on back streets in big cities at night.
For me the negative side of this film was miniscule. Even at a running time of a mere 85 minutes, I felt that the gimmick of zero dialogue grated on my patience. The concept would have made an excellent 30 minute effort by Rod Serling, or a one hour episode on THE OUTER LIMITS. Several of the scenes going wordless just defied logic, strained credulity--like the scenes with the fetching Rita Gam; even if Fields remained mute, she gave the impression of brashness and verbosity. So I felt pushed, manipulated, forced to watch without hearing dialogue, without reading placards. My fascination eroded into crankiness. When Allen Fields halted at the base of the cat walk leading up to his escape freighter, and then gave in to his guilt, tore up his fake passport, and walked away with his head down and his shoulders stooped in righteousness, there were not cheers from the peanut gallery, only groans. You could hear John Edgar Hoover clapping along with hordes of lackeys, but the rest of us grimaced.
Watching this film in 2008, 55 years after first seeing it at the Roosevelt Theater in Seattle as a kid, I did enjoy it more. I did appreciate the artistry and audacity it projected. It remains a special and unique experiment, a vibrant and challenging movie experience that is certainly worthy of viewing and discussing.