DVD, Image Entertainment
A few months back, this column extolled the virtues of Jules Dassin's Rififi, praising the long heist sequence, in which dialogue and music come to a halt for 30 minutes or so while men go about their work in tense silence. While that film went about things in a very innovative way, it turns out Dassin was beat to the punch on the whole silence thing, at least in one respect: The Thief, though a sound film with music and foley effects, has no dialogue through its entire running time.
We'll admit, the film is mainly of interest as a successful experiment. But these occasions in which a filmmaker throws down the gauntlet are pretty fascinating in and of themselves; one thinks of Rope, in which Alfred Hitchcock went the distance in a single shot. (Technically, that's not true, but he did it to the extent it was physically possible.) As with Rope, this film picks a story that works within a technical conceit: The whole film follows Ray Milland's Allan Fields, a physicist who is (for reasons we never learn) stealing American secrets for a foreign power. We see the mechanics of his crime, watch his recrimination and self-doubt, then see how things pan out for Dr. Fields and those who seek to stop him.
Appropriately for a film that harkens back to the silent era, Milland is a big fat ham. His eyes bulge when he's scared, he paces and clenches his fists when he's worried, at extra tense moments he wrings his face like a wet wash rag. And his performance is the only one we have here; all the other players have bit parts. So yeah, it's corny — and the repetitive score doesn't help. (And don't let the seductive female eyes on the movie package fool you — there's no love interest to speak of, no pun intended.)
But as a thing to marvel at for sheer fun of filmmaking, The Thief is a milestone. A bit of Cold War political melodrama that works on its own terms, it deserves credit as inspiration for some of the cinema's most thrilling silent scenes.