Sunday, July 12, 2009

Target #62: The Thief (1952, Russell Rouse)

Directed by: Russell Rouse
Written by: Russell Rouse (writer), Clarence Greene (writer)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

The Thief (1952) sets itself apart from other Cold War-era thrillers – and, indeed, from most American films released after 1930 – because it unfolds entirely without dialogue. Directed by Russell Rouse, the film uses its deliberate silence, not merely as an unusual gimmick, but as a legitimate storytelling device, to internalise the guilt, fear and frustration of its protagonist. In most films, characters get worries off their chests simply by talking to others – but to whom can Allan Fields talk? Not to his fellow Communist spies, who must never be seen in his company, and whose convictions he doesn't necessarily share. Certainly not to friends or family, whose way-of-life he is betraying to the enemy. Lonely and segregated, Fields (Ray Milland) simply goes about his painful duties, his inner torment consistently repressed behind a strained pretense of nonchalance. Only when he inadvertently murders a young FBI agent does his anguish spill forth into physical and verbal form, in a pitiful outpouring of grief and emotion.

Despite a slow first half, in which Fields' typical espionage duties are introduced via a lot of silent waiting, The Thief picks up substantially once the American authorities catch wind of his crimes. Rouse cultivates some truly thumping suspense sequences, including a magnificent stairway pursuit up the then-tallest building in the world, the Empire State. This breathless flight from the 88th floor observatory to the 102nd floor, and beyond, serves as a convenient allegory for Fields' Communist involvement. As an FBI agent rushes in pursuit, Milland's character tries repeatedly to escape through service doors on each floor, only to find them locked each time. Throughout the film, despite wishing to abandon his treasonous practices, Fields consistently finds his path to freedom blocked, his only option to continue what he's been doing, further implicating himself with each staircase he ascends. When inevitably cornered high above New York City, ironically defenseless at the pinnacle of human achievement, Fields desperately lashes out at his aggressor, and does the unthinkable.
In spite of my reservations that only a low-budget film could get away with such an anachronistic style, The Thief does, in fact, boast excellent production values. Sam Leavitt's cinematography is graceful but with an edge of documentary-realism. I particularly enjoyed the lurid confusion of Fields' nervous breakdown (perhaps a nod to Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945)), with an increasingly-claustrophobic Milland filmed from above like an insignificant pawn, as specks of blood appear to permeate the walls. Despite his Oscar, Ray Milland is one of his generation's most underrated leading men, and he handles an exceedingly difficult role with poise and empathy: just watch Fields' pang of guilt every time he glances at the Capitol Dome, a symbol of American nationalism. Despite its sympathetic portrayal of a Commie spy, the film is nevertheless patriotic, as it must have been at this time. Indeed, Fields' ultimate decision to confess everything to the FBI comes not with the realisation that he is a bad person, but the realisation that he is a bad American.

Currently my #8 film of 1952:
1) Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
2) Limelight (Charles Chaplin)
3) Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
4) On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino) *
5) The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli)
6) High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)
7) Macao (Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray) *
8) The Thief (Russell Rouse) *


Books,Coffee,etc.... said...

Hi! Andrew,
What are you doing? Reading my mind
or something...because I was about to purchase or place this film in my cart, but after I read the following words: "because it unfolds entirely without dialogue..."

I "quietly" removed it from my cart, but after reading your review here...guess where the dvd is now... it's back! in my cart.

Thanks, for a review that "sold" me on this film.
By the way, Can I please send you, an email about author Eric Ambler?

DeeDee ;-D

ackatsis said...

Hi DeeDee,
I swear that I don't have spies in your home-city who are passing on information about your noir-related activities! ;-)

Like it said, you might find the first half-hour difficult to get through, but, once it gets going, it gets very good.
And you can send me an e-mail about anything you want!


Books,Coffee,etc.... said...

Hi! Andrew,
I finally received a copy of the film "The Thief" and once I watch this film I will tell you my thoughts about this film too.
Take care!
DeeDee ;-D

ackatsis said...

I look forward to hearing your thoughts, DeeDee.