Russell Rouse’s The Thief is essentially a gimmick in search of a story. Oh, there’s a story—atomic scientist (Ray Milland) steals our plans and sells them to the Russians, one of spies is killed. evidence mounts against Milland who tries to evade the FBI—but it’s not much of one. It’s standard 1950s Red Menace fare and it’s not fleshed out owing to the central gimmick that there’s no dialogue in the film. By that I mean no one ever says anything—not even implicitly or out of earshot. No, they just don’t speak. It’s awkward to say the least. It also slows the film down (and it wasn’t exactly action-packed to begin with). There is seemingly endless footage of Milland thinking—augmented by enough shots of him smoking to give him tobacco heart and most drinking than he did in The Lost Weekend (1945). As you may guess, this gets boring pretty fast.
There are plus sides—some intentional, some not. In the unintentional column, the spy business quickly becomes hysterically funny. There’s never any apparent reason for all the shifty business of multiple carriers and secret signals and strange public drop-off spots. In fact, the whole elaborate network of carriers is the only reason the spy ring gets busted. But more, all this “spy stuff” is so obvious and so overstated that it could only serve to draw greater attention to the mysterious business at hand. I’m sure it’s meant to be a convincing portrait of how spies work, but its greatest value lies in how funny it is. In much the same vein, it’s a plus that the dialogue-free nature of the film makes the usual patriotic speeches inherent in this McCarthy-era stuff impossible.
An intentional upside lies in the film’s location shooting, which not only gives the movie some much needed visual interest, but helps offset the bland TV look of so many of the interiors. The big climactic set-piece on the actual top floors of the Empire State Building is truly pretty remarkable. The action itself is only so-so, but the sense of peril in the unusual setting in very effective indeed. It doesn’t make the film more than a curio, but it makes it a more watchable curio. One thing is certainly true, however. The film’s tagline, “The only motion picture of its kind,” is undeniable. The results make it clear why this is still the case.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Thief Sunday, March 2, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.