movie review – The Thief (1952)

So if you read my reviews of old movies, you might be wondering how I choose the ones to watch and/or review. Or, you likely don’t. But what I do is type “film noir” or “noir” into the search and scroll through what pops up. It’s sometimes the same bunch of movies, and then I try it a week later and it’s a different set. I’ll scroll through a playlist someone made linking various public domain (or not public domain) titles from different accounts and watch what looks interesting. A lot of crime and morality tale movies, often with happy endings, end up on these searches or lists. And those usually don’t qualify as actual film noir. Which is fine, as many are watchable and enjoyable. It’s just how I look for these movies. Yesterday’s post, the double feature review, was no different. Both are crime or mystery movies. After I watch movies like that, the search shows related or suggested videos to watch, and that’s how I found today’s. The Thief stars Ray Milland, which instantly prioritized the movie.

Ray Milland is such a proper British gentleman it’s disturbing how charming he is. Like, the perfect dinner party guest, the kind of voice and demeanor where you’d pepper him with question after question just to hear him talk. I know him best from my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, Dial M For Murder, where he tires of being married to Grace Kelly and calmly blackmails someone kill her. He was also the hilariously condescending plotter in a Columbo episode where he browbeats his nephew into pulling off a fake kidnapping before bumping him off. So, when I saw that The Thief starred Ray Milland, I pressed “play” expecting a dashing burglar whose cleverly outwits his victims and pursuers, and couldn’t wait to here him talk his way out of various scenarios.

…there is no talking in this movie.

Wow, what a letdown in casting. The movie has sound, mostly regular background noise and a near-continual score that could have been reigned in a bit because if you ARE going to build tension with no dialog, then let the pantomiming and foley of the scenes carry it like it should if that’s you’re choice.

Not to say that the score or even the movie are bad – the end result is pretty good. Milland is a DC scientist working on highly classified nuclear projects. He’s introduced as a stressed out mess, smoking in bed and fully dressed. He goes to work and takes pictures of classified documents, and then drops off the film in places in the library for the next step in the spy network that gets the photo film out of the country. (I have to specify that it’s on physical film – no emailing the pics or posting on a saboteur tumblr page.) You get to see the hand off from person to person as they also take steps to signal to each other, placing calls and hanging up or dropping notes that need to be burned after reading.

Milland still goes to work, and without dialog you might not get the sense that he still has a day job, he’s still an employee, he’s still a scientist. He just happens to have been sending secrets to a foreign enemy. Is he a traitor? I mean, yes, he IS, but does he consider himself one? Or is this just a way to make some extra cash at the expense of national security? And, with no dialog or further scenes where he interacts with anyone outside of the spy network, why would he need the money? If he’s getting paid?

So we don’t get the full story behind the character or his motivations but we do get the fear of being caught as well as the guilt. He has to reach to higher levels for more secrets which means more opportunities and likeliness of getting caught in the act. However, it’s an accident down the spy line that disrupts the operation, and soon the FBI are (silently) tailing and checking up everyone in Milland’s department. Soon he is faced with the task of erasing his steps, and possibly himself as an American.

There’s a few moments that could have been set up better, such as when he’s trying to break into a senior scientist’s office and is almost caught unlocking the door. You don’t hear an approaching colleague, but he does and manages to hide. I took note of the musical score, and wondered if that scene could have been done better with being allowed to hear the approaching scientist first before he does. However, there’s a similar moment in the office, and the level of suspense is perfect, so maybe having the first copout as is lowers the expectations for the viewer.

There’s plenty of great cinematography, and there’d have to be, wouldn’t there? Milland’s trips to the cavernous library, a trip to NYC and the Empire State Building – all very neatly filmed, just no talking. Not even a discussion with the tempting floozy in the motel he hides out in while waiting for his final instructions.

I’d recommend it – it’s not great despite the concept which is mostly pulled off throughout. And, despite no lines whatsoever, Milland’s expressions with some great takes and closeups shows that he doesn’t need to talk his way out of anything for another enjoyable performance.

Is it noir? Espionage feels like a bigger theme than crimes of passion, but our character is a regular guy way in over his head, and things aren’t going to end well for him, even if he has the opportunity to seek justice. So, sure. The filmmakers Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene were behind a lot of noir and crime films and TV shows, notably with the classic murder mystery from the POV of the victim, D.O.A.

You can watch it here, for now.

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