The telephone is ringing in a dingy apartment and the sole occupant, Allen Fields (Ray Milland), lets it ring until it stops. He is a prize-winning nuclear scientist who has fallen on hard times and is being forced into situations he would rather avoid. Tonight, he leaves his apartment and walks out into the darkness, feeling stressed - is that someone watching him from across the street? Yes it is, for Fields is under surveillance, not by the F.B.I. but by an enemy power, one which can bend his weak will to their own devices...
The only reason The Thief is recalled today, if it is recalled at all, is because of its curiosity value. This is because it was one of the unusual, noir-ish movies made by the team of Russell Rouse (our director here) and Clarence Greene during the fifties; their most famous work was probably the gimmicky thriller D.O.A., which they wrote together, but if anything this film relies even more heavily on novelty. And yet, for all that it does seem to be a sincere examination of crushing guilt, which the lead character suffers for the whole movie until he cannot take it anymore.
Milland was the man cast possibly because of his triumph in his Oscar-winning role in The Lost Weekend, for there are scenes in this that are suspiciously similar to the Billy Wilder alcoholism drama. Witness Fields skulking through the streets at night, being driven to crime or lying in his bed, tossing and turning as the enormity of his actions prevents him from getting a peaceful night's sleep. Yet through all this he never confides or confesses to anyone, indeed not a word passes his lips, nor does one emerge from anyone else in the film.
This is because in its own idiosyncratic manner, The Thief is a silent movie. Not like those of before The Jazz Singer, but as an experiment to see if a story could be told cinematically without dialogue, and you have to say that they did succeed in doing that. What they don't succeed in carrying off is a compelling yarn, as we never get to know very much about Fields and as he's effectively a spy for the wrong side we don't find him sympathetic, even if he does labour under unbearable shame about his actions. The lack of anyone saying anything does, however, ramp up a particular tension akin to watching a tightrope walker - will anyone blurt out a sentence accidentally?
Well, nobody does, not even at the end, and as an exercise in paranoia this is interesting, although it does betray the unfortunate gulf between clever and entertaining. Everywhere Fields goes there is someone who knows who he is and is waiting for him to crack, either on the American side or the Other Side, and there always seems to be someone expecting him to hand over a microfilm of top secret nuclear weapons documents around every corner. The trouble is, this becomes very repetitive and without much variation in the plotting impatience can set in all too easily. Milland just about manages to hold it together, but he's facing an uphill struggle as after a while you want to say, yes, we get the idea, now give us a snappy line or two. Music by Herschel Burke Gilbert.