Friday, April 12, 2013

The Thief (1952)

Directed by Russell Rouse, 1952's 'The Thief' stars Ray Milland as renowned and decorated nuclear physicist Dr. Allan Fields. Fields works at the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington D.C., but he's also a spy for an unnamed country, most likely the Russians. Communication between him and his espionage contact happens using phone rings, the pattern of the rings signifying the intent, usually to pick up a crumpled, discarded cigarette box on a street, containing instructions. The instruction usually say he's to photograph certain secret documents at the AEC onto micro-film. Fields then uses the Library Of Congress as the drop point for his contact to pick up the micro-film which is then smuggled out of the country, through an elaborate chain of people. One micro-film however doesn't make it out of the country as one of the links in the chain, an unnamed man, has a car accident, and the micro-film ends up with the FBI, who quickly link it back to the AEC. The FBI starts to follow all possible suspects from the AEC, including Fields, which his spy contact notices. He's instructed to go to New York City and wait until he receives further instructions on how to flee the country. The FBI intercepts the instructions however and catches up with Fields and his spy-ring on top of the Empire State Building in an almost Hitchcock-ian climax.

The plot is fairly basic and straight-forward, but for a reason. As the first tagline of the movie-poster says, 'The Only Motion Picture Of Its Kind!', and it's not far from the truth. This is quite the experimental film noir, as it has no dialogue (or monologue) whatsoever, as explained by the second tagline 'Not a word is spoken...!'. Unlike silent movies where people talk but aren't heard by the audience, people don't talk in this movie, period. Even the music heard on the radio is instrumental music. That does not mean people don't make sounds, as sighs and even cries are heard, albeit rarely, and a low murmur of voices is heard in the background at one point in the movie. But it does mean there's no dialogue to explain things or to advance the plot, so the viewer has to pay attention at all times, as there's one sense less to rely on when watching this movie. There are also ambient noises such as ringing phones (and there are a lot of em in this movie), footsteps, moving cars and the sound of chairs moving around, so this is a very deliberate 'gimmick' that is not even about making a 'silent movie'-style thriller, but about making a thriller that has no dialogue. It worked for me tho, but I imagine it's quite a polarizing aspect of this movie. And I also imagine this 'gimmick' was chosen to convey, and enhance, the solitude felt by Fields as well as the silent, quiet underground world of espionage where every word uttered can be one word too many.

No motivation is ever given for Fields' spying activities, but it's made clear from the way Fields behaves that he does not enjoy doing what he does, and he grows more conflicted over time. Personally, since it's the 50s with the communist 'red' scare and all, it seems fairly logical that he was spying for the Russians or another communist country, and following that, his motivation might have been to ensure that neither the West nor the East got the upper hand on nuclear knowledge, and thus on nuclear weaponry. Leveling the playing field so to say. But at no point in the movie is any of this alluded to, which is intriguing in itself.

Ray Milland ('Dial M For Murder', 'The Lost Weekend', 'Alias Nick Beal') carries the movie in a convincing manner, earning him a Golden Globe nomination for his performance. Without uttering a single word and without overacting, he manages to bring across a plethora of emotion in Fields' character, as Fields becomes more and more conflicted and frustrated with his spying activities.

The only other characters of note are Martin Gabel as Fields' contact for the spy-ring and Rita Gam as a woman occupying a room in a dingy hotel in New York City, and appears to be slightly interested in/intrigued by Fields, although seemingly more out of boredom than anything else. Mind you, apart from eye contact, Fields never has any sort of physical contact with either Gabel or Gam.

The movie was directed by Russell Rouse who also co-wrote the screenplay with producer Clarence Green. Together they also wrote screenplays for other noirs such as 'New York Confidential' and 'Wicked Woman'. The great cinematography was done by Sam Leavitt ('Anatomy Of A Murder', 'A Star Is Born') and it earned him a Golden Globe nomination. The soundtrack was scored by Herschel Burke Gilbert ('Witness To Murder', 'Beyond A Reasonable Doubt') which rightfully earned him an Oscar nomination. His music compliments the mood of each scene perfectly. It can be overbearing at some points, but because of the no-talking device it didn't bother me and seemed rather appropriate here.

This is not a perfect movie, nor is it great, but it's really intriguing and good and I enjoyed it. Despite the basic and straight-forward plot, this movie is definitely not easy to watch due to its gimmick. For me, it works tho. But I can totally see why it wouldn't for others.

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