THE THIEF (1952) VOICELESS IN MANHATTAN
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. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for THE THIEF script. 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.
Dennis Schwartz from OZUS WORLD MOVIE REVIEWS wrote, “Russell Rouse (THE OSCAR) directs and co-wrote this unique but tedious spy/Red Scare thriller set in NYC. There’s no dialogue throughout. It is a silent film in the true sense of a silent film. The gimmick, except for natural sound effects, never caught my interest, but as the film drags laboriously along after the novelty wears off, it becomes downright annoying. It seems contrived, and serves no purpose—or does the “gimmick” make the film more interesting? But at least with no dialogue, we don’t have to listen to a lecture on patriotism or any shrill anti-Red diatribe.”
From the 1952 NEW YORK TIMES review, “It has been 25 years since the screen acquired the gift of tongues, and now with THE THIEF, which arrived at the Roxy yesterday, 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. But it is a feature-length chase, occasionally repetitious, in which suspense is only intermittent, key reasons for the crimes are missing and logic sometimes hangs by a fragile thread.”
The star of the film was Reginald Alfred John Truscott-James, all 6’2” of him, better known to most folks as Ray Milland. He had to carry this film squarely on his shoulders, appearing in every scene, having to convey a myriad of feelings and emotion without uttering one word with that mellifluous voice of his. Ironically in 1945, when he accepted the Oscar for Best Actor after his role in THE LOST WEEKEND, he never said a word. He just bowed, smiled, and exited casually stage right. I read where both Cary Grant and Jose Ferrer had been considered for the role in LOST WEEKEND. He was born in Wales, trained to be an actor in England, and his first early films were done in Britain. Interestingly, he never had a hint of the British accent like David Niven and Stewart Granger did. American Standard English was good enough for him. He was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actor for his work on THE THIEF (1952).
During Milland’s 60 year career in Hollywood it was said of him that he never partied much, was not a socialite; rather was a “book-loving homebody”. His filmography was immense, 173 films starting in 1929 in THE INFORMER. He was in CHARLIE CHAN IN LONDON (1934), THE GLASS KEY (1935), EBB TIDE (1937), MEN WITH WINGS (1938), BEAU GESTE (1939), with Gary Cooper, REAP THE WILD WIND (1942), with John Wayne, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942), THE UNINVITED (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), THE BIG CLOCK (1948), ALIAS NICK BEAL (1949), BUGLES IN THE AFTERNOON (1952), DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954), GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING (1955), then tried his comedic flair playing Professor McNulty on the television series THE RAY MILLAND SHOW (1955). Like so many other studio stars, his career took a bit of a nose dive in the late 50’s and he appeared in TV series roles, and “B” films like PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO (1962), and PREMATURE BURIAL (1962), MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES (1963). Working without his toupee he had a resurgence for a time after he appeared in LOVE STORY (1970), and on the TV mini-series RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976). He actually was quite good in comedy roles, but was only given marginal opportunities.
From the 1952 NEW YORK TIMES review, “Above all, Russell Rouse, who also directed, has gotten a sensitive and towering performance from Ray Milland in the title role; his portrayal of the traitorous scientist, a man whose motivations are not apparent, is superb.”
Mackjay2 on IMDB wrote, “Right off the bat we can expect quality with Ray Milland in the lead: the man can act! THE THIEF is a graphic demonstration of how acting requires much more than good line-readings. Milland immerses himself in the drama from the word go, and we almost never think of him as an “actor” until the end, when the impact of the film really hits.”
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.
From the 1952 NEW YORK TIMES film review, “All the characters are involved in areas that are visually exciting, from the Library of Congress to the quiet, tree-shaded streets of Georgetown, and to the subways, teeming midtown streets and the tower of our town’s Empire State Building, in which part of this chase takes place. They, too, have an excellent assist from the sound track, which has recorded sounds of the street and interiors with fidelity and often—dramatic impact. And they have a story that is simply a peg to hang an interesting novelty. Novelty, in short, is this melodrama’s basic virtue.”
Interesting in a post script for this article from 1952, there was mention of the “between show” that was common in big city theaters in the 40’s and 50’s. “Featured on the stage of the Roxy are Johnny Johnston, Jerry Colonna, and the ice-skating revue starring Arnold Shoda.”
Martin Gabel played the head conspirator. Oddly his name was misspelled as “Gable” in the credits for THE THIEF. Considering the “cigarette package clues” in the film, and the propensity of smoking in all 50’s films, it was sad to read the Gabel died in 1986 of lung cancer. He did a lot of theater work in NYC. He appeared in 31 films from 1951. THIEF was his fifth film. (An odd thought occurred to me. SAG only pays “actor’s rates” after one word of dialogue is uttered on film. This meant that the extras who belonged to SEG worked for less. Since THE THIEF was done without one word of dialogue, did SAG balk at paying the stars?) Most of Gabel’s career was television roles. He was in MARNIE (1964) with Sean Connery, and LADY IN CEMENT (1968), with Frank Sinatra. He was married to Arlene Francis, and he managed to be “the most frequent guest” on TV’s WHAT’S MY LINE.
Mackjay2 on IMDb wrote, “His main contact is played nicely by Martin Gabel, an actor with a face perfect for sinister, wordless intrigue.”
Rita Gam, the girl of the hallway, the simmering sexpot in THE THIEF, was one of those very striking beauties that never quite achieved star status. She was still lovely when I worked with her at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1974 in CAMINO REAL. She appeared in 46 films starting in 1950. She was in NIGHT PEOPLE (1954), with Gregory Peck and Broderick Crawford, MOHAWK (1956), with Scott Brady, SIERRA BARON (1958), KING OF KINGS (1961), with Jeffrey Hunter, and KLUTE (1971), with Jane Fonda. Gam was married to film director Sidney Lumet from 1949-1954. She was good friends with actress Grace Kelly; was a bride’s maid at Kelly’s Monaco super wedding. Ms. Rita Gam was nominated for a Golden Globe for THIEF as “The Most Promising Newcomer.”
From the NEW YORK TIMES 1952 film review, “Rita Gam, a beauteous newcomer recruited from television, only indicates in her brief appearance as the temptress in the tenement hallway used by Milland that she could fill a bathing suit neatly.”
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. He composed 45 film scores from 1946, and hundreds of TV series themes and scores. He wrote the scores for THE MOON IS BLUE (1953), CARMEN JONES (1954), WHILE TH CITY SLEEPS (1956), and the hard core jazz score for SLAUGHTER ON 10th AVENUE (1957).
From the 1952 NEW YORK TIMES review, “The musical score by Hershel Gilbert is insidiously suggestive in creating atmosphere as well as indicating the emotions of the principals.”
Spelvini on IMDb wrote, “Hats off to Ray Milland and the wonderful musical score because just as in the early films of the silent period—all the plot points of the film are underscored through purely visual means, pushing the film to the level of pure cinema. The musical score that Hershel Burke Gilbert composed says volumes about the character Allen Fields, and his emotional state. Gilbert received an Oscar nomination for his musical score and one watching will tell you why. Gilbert creates swells and moods to support the facial expressions and other physical language that Milland utilizes to show us what is happening with Fields and his eroding state of mind.”
Mackjay2 on IMDb wrote, “Just as important as the acting and directing is the musical score. Hershel Burke Gilbert must have outdone himself for this project. This is an excellent score; never obtrusive, always supportive of the action, pleasing, but never calling attention to itself. The music really makes the film work. An example of how intelligent the approach to the scoring is comes at the film’s climax—when Milland is followed to very top of the Empire State Building—the music stops completely for about 10 minutes. The effect is very Hitchcockian.”
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. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on THE THIEF (1952). He was head lenser on 65 films from 1932. He did not work from 1935-1952. He shot A STAR IS BORN (1954), CARMEN JONES (1954), THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955), COURT MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL (1955), won an Oscar for THE DEFIANT ONES (1958), PORK CHOP HILL (1959), ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959), EXODUS (1960), CAPE FEAR (1962), MAJOR DUNDEE (1965), and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? (1967). He was quite a heavyweight cinematographer actually.
From the 1952 NEW YORK TIMES review, “The fine photography of cinematographer Sam Leavitt, whose cameras have captured the lights of actual, and familiar, locations in Washington (D.C.) and New York, contributes strongly to the tensions of the hunt.”
Spelvini on IMDb wrote, “The night exteriors are textbook noir examples of lighting and camera. In this case the ambient sounds of the Washington D. C. locations are contrasted well with those of the NYC locations, especially the wide shot of Milland arriving in the beautiful Pennsylvania Train Station before it was demolished.”
Dennis Schwartz of OZUS WORLD MOVIE REVIEWS wrote, “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.”
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.
Glenn A. Buttkus 2008