The independently made cold-war thriller The Thief covers familiar terrain in a novel way. Sight and sound are heightened by a central conceit that I won’t reveal. Composer Herschel Burke Gilbert’s dramatic and insistent score – which garnered an Oscar nomination – is more than up to a big task.
A nuclear scientist in Washington is leaking secrets to the enemy. When the story opens he is clearly having second thoughts. Whether his entrapment is motivated by money or ideology is not central to the film’s concerns, which early on focuses on the mechanics of the treachery. After a mishap blows the breach wide-open the hapless spy is on the run. Here the film goes out on the streets of Washington and – in the final scenes – New York City.A middle-aged greying Ray Milland delivers in a demanding role where demeanour must convey the mood. He is as strong as in The Lost Weekend (1945) and then some. Milland’s performance, and the brilliant noir photography of Sam Leavitt and taut direction of Clarence Greene (who had a hand in the script and produced) elevate the film despite a threadbare plot to a certain greatness. The tension is held throughout and your adrenalin levels are continually pushed to the max. The redemptive resolution is weak but countered by the sheer visual poetry of the closing scenes.
The film noir motif of entrapment is the dramatic core and delivers one of the movie’s strongest scenes. Milland is holed-up in a decrepit NY tenement with the FBI closing-in while he waits for the next signal from his handlers of his escape plan. The camera looks down from the ceiling of the tenement room at Milland pacing frantically from wall to wall like a rat in a trap. The only window faces a brick wall. This solitary desolation harkens back to earlier in the story when Milland is shown walking the prison-like corridors of his place of work.
This is a film noir so sex lays its claim to attention. Milland’s scientist is a loner who has lived and worked in isolation, and his sexual repression is revealed through a tease that is both brutal and unnerving. As he desperately waits for a telephone call in the corridor of the tenement ever on the edge of hysteria, he encounters the occupant of the room opposite, a young woman that makes “alligators look tame”. Then TV actress Rita Gam plays this girl with consummate sleaze, delivering perhaps the hottest come-on of the classic noir cycle.
A must-see study of entrapment on steroids.