The Thief (1952 film)

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The Thief
The Thief (1952 film) poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Russell Rouse
Produced by Clarence Greene
Screenplay by Clarence Greene
Russell Rouse
Starring Ray Milland
Music by Herschel Burke Gilbert
Cinematography Sam Leavitt
Edited by Chester W. Schaeffer
Production
company
Harry Popkin Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • October 15, 1952 (1952-10-15) (United States)
Running time 86 minutes
Country United States
Box office $1 million[1]

The Thief is a 1952 American black-and-white Cold War film noir spy film, directed by Russell Rouse and starring Ray Milland. It's the third in a series of six classic film noir productions scripted by Rouse and his writing partner Clarence Greene. The film is unusual because there is no principal actor dialogue spoken.[2]

The principal characters are not "fleshed-out", as they might be in a more conventional film, as this film is more about "trade-craft", not as much about the principal characters and their respective personalities. Not withstanding that observation, the film certainly depends upon the exceptionally strong dramatic performance by Ray Milland, and the equally strong music performance by composer/conductor Herschel Burke Gilbert. The film is nearly fully orchestrated by Gilbert.

Plot[edit]

Ray Milland plays Dr. Allan Fields, a nuclear physicist who works for the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, D.C.. But Fields is also a spy working for an unnamed foreign power.

Through an elaborate series of plans and devices, "tradecraft", Fields, as ordered by his "case officer",[3] takes sets of photos of top-secret documents, using a Minox camera, and passes these through a vast network of foreign-power "couriers"[4] to New York City, and thereafter overseas to an enemy country (implied by the final courier's plane's destination of "Cairo",[5] certainly a thinly-veiled reference to "the East", without actually naming the Soviet Union). The latest canister of microfilm which Fields sends out is intercepted by authorities after a courier is killed in a freak traffic accident in Manhattan, with the undeveloped microfilm canister in his hand. The FBI develops the microfilm, analyzes its contents and constructs a list of probable suspects within the AEC, one of whom is the "custodian"[6] of the subject document, and who is initially interrogated.

The custodian having apparently been cleared of espionage charges, Fields and his immediate AEC colleagues have all come under suspicion by the FBI, and agents are assigned to "tail" each one, but it quickly becomes apparent that Fields is the "prime suspect". Fields' case officer becomes aware of this and sends him a "flash message", in a Western Union telegram, to destroy all his "spy-craft" apparatus and to leave immediately for a "safe house"[7] in New York City.

Now scared and paranoid, Fields stays overnight in the safe house, a cheap hotel, waiting for a "signal" (as usual, throughout this film, three rings on the phone, a hang-up, followed immediately by three rings, followed by another hang-up)[8] from his case officer on the hotel's hall phone.

After Fields has been so signaled by his case officer, his trail eventually leads to the Empire State Building. While at the 86th-floor observation deck, Fields meets his contact, Miss Philips. The alert FBI agent spots Fields and pursues Fields who climbs even higher, reaching the 102nd-floor observation deck, and, finally, the spire—where, perhaps as an homage, King Kong had famously met his doom several decades before—Fields fights off the agent, causing the agent to plummet to his death. Fields exits the building with money and false identity documents, his "escape",[9] which will get him out of the country, incredibly enough, also to "Cairo", but he has been shaken by the sight of the dead agent, and feels remorse.

Fields finally breaks down after realizing what he has done, destroys his escape, and surrenders to the FBI the next day.

Cast[edit]

  • Ray Milland as Allan Fields (Nuclear physicist/spy for the Soviet Union)
  • Martin Gabel as Mr. Bleek (Soviet agent/case officer)
  • Harry Bronson as Harris (FBI agent)
  • Rita Vale as Miss Philips (Soviet agent/courier)
  • Rex O'Malley as Beal (Soviet agent/courier)
  • Rita Gam as the Girl (MacGuffin)
  • John McKutcheon as Dr. Linstrum
  • Joe Conlin as Walters

Goofs[edit]

  • It is not explained how Harris, who lost Fields in Washington, was later able to tail Philips in New York City, and through Philips was able to find Fields again, as there were numerous "buffers" (intermediate agents) between Fields and Philips, and it was most unlikely that Fields ever knew of Philips; perhaps Harris was reassigned to tail Philips (in Manhattan), after losing Fields (in Washington)?
  • It is not explained how the FBI made the connection between the car which Fields was implicitly provided in the "flash message" in Washington, and which he appropriately discarded in Manhattan, and, subsequently, connecting this car to Fields himself; in all respects this was just another abandoned car, out of perhaps tens of thousands in Manhattan, although Fields' fingerprints were, indeed, found on the car's glove box door (those prints being an obvious "plant" by the screenwriter and director).

Reaction[edit]

Critical response[edit]

When the film was released, A. W. Weiler, the film critic at The New York Times gave the film a good review, writing, "Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse, an enterprising pair of film artisans, are trying to prove that some movie yarns are better seen than heard. Their effort is a successful tour de force. For, generally speaking, theirs is a spy melodrama in which language would appear to be redundant ... aside from its novelty, The thief has its fair share of attributes. The fine photography of cinematographer Sam Leavitt, whose cameras have captured the lights of actual, and familiar, locations in Washington and New York, contributes strongly to the tensions of the hunt. The musical score by Herschel Gilbert is insidiously suggestive in creating atmosphere as well as indicating the emotions of the principals. And, above all, Russell Rouse, who also directed, has gotten a sensitive and towering performance from Ray Milland in the title role."[10]

The staff at Variety magazine reviewed the film positively. They wrote, "This has an offbeat approach to film story-telling (a complete absence of dialog), a good spy plot and a strong performance by Ray Milland. The film is not soundless. The busy hum of a city is a cacophonous note, a strident-sounding telephone bell plays an important part and, overall, there’s the topnotch musical score by Herschel Burke Gilbert, sometimes used almost too insistently to build a melodramatic mood and in other spots softly emphasizing and making clear the dumb action of the players."[11]

More recently, film critic Dennis Schwartz gave the film a mixed review. He wrote, "Russell Rouse (The Oscar) directs and co-writes this unique but tedious spy/Red Scare thriller set in New York City ... What we get is a tense mood piece through the excellent dark visuals delivered by cinematographer Sam Leavitt. It shows a lonely and alienated unsympathetic man on-the-run, who is trapped in a shadowy world of chaos but is not fleshed out in his character so we never become concerned with his plight as a human interest story."[12]

Accolades[edit]

Year Award/Category Recipient Result
Academy Awards
1953 Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture Herschel Burke Gilbert Nominated
Golden Globe Awards
1953 Best Cinematography - Black and White Sam Leavitt Nominated
1953 Best Motion Picture - Drama Nominated
1953 Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama Ray Milland Nominated
1953 Best Screenplay Clarence Greene, Russell Rouse Nominated
1953 Most Promising Newcomer - Female Rita Gam Nominated

References[edit]

  1. ^ 'Top Box-Office Hits of 1952', Variety, January 7, 1953
  2. ^ The Thief at the TCM Movie Database.
  3. ^ case officer, thefreedictionary.com, retrieved 27 April 2014
  4. ^ courier, thefreedictionary.com, retrieved 27 April 2014
  5. ^ Istanbul, being in a NATO country, still within "the West", but arguably being on the border of "the East", probably would have been a more appropriate literary choice.
  6. ^ custodian, thefreedictionary.com, retrieved 29 April 2014
  7. ^ safe house, thefreedictionary.com, retrieved 3 May 2014
  8. ^ This signal worked both ways, 1) from his case officer to Fields for a request for specific secret information, or a request for specific action, and 2) from Fields to his case officer, to indicate that the information was available for pick-up, or that the action had been completed.
  9. ^ escape, thefreedictionary.com, retrieved 31 April 2014
  10. ^ Weiler, A.W. The New York Times, film review, October 16, 1952. Accessed: July 15, 2013.
  11. ^ Variety film review, 1952. Accessed: July 15, 2013.
  12. ^ Schwartz, Dennis. Ozus' World Movie Reviews, film review, February 24, 2005. Accessed: July 15, 2013.

External links[edit]