Rita Gam died this month in Los Angeles at age 88.
You can be forgiven if her name does not immediately ring a bell. Gam was never considered a star during her Hollywood period in the 1950’s. Instead, she was regarded as a solid stage actress turned welcome supporting player — who happen to make one of the most memorable movie debuts in recent decades.
This bring us to The Thief, a highly underrated 1952 film noir that stars Ray Milland, a real workhorse who appeared in some 70 productions of all stripes at MGM and at Paramount (his home for two decades) by the time director Billy Wilder cast him in his Oscar-winning role as dipsomaniac writer Don Birnam as 1945’s The Lost Weekend.
By the time he starred in The Thief seven years later, Milland was an established star who could carry a picture.
In The Thief Milland plays a dignified, mild-mannered atomic scientist in Washington who just happens to be passing classified nuclear secrets to the Russians. When the FBI gets on his trail, he absconds to New York City en route to some foreign destination.
A death occurs, Milland’s character experiences a breakdown and a self atoning denouement makes things right. Moody location cinematography of various New York locations accentuate the grittiness of the action set train station lockers, rooming houses and seedy tenements complete with blinking neon signs.
What makes this underrated film noir so special?
Well, the characters in the picture carry on without the benefit of dialogue. The plot is driven only by visuals and sound effects.
No spoken lines. None. For the most part, this “experiment” actually works.
What works completely is a brief but searingly erotic turn by Gam, as the siren across the tenement hall who casts come-hither stares in Milland’s direction (he does not reciprocate). Gam’s character is speechless too, but who cares? She’s conveys her erotic invitation with steady glances and come-hither movement.
Rita’s turn in the picture did not go unnoticed. In her obit in The New York Times, it’s noted that Life Magazine featured her on its cover that year (1952) as a ‘silent and sexy’ star ‘who can express herself eloquently without words.’ In just a few moments on the screen, the magazine said, Ms. Gam ‘makes a striking movie debut without uttering a word.’
Gam went on to make a number of features of varying quality but none made anywhere near the impression on her behalf as did The Thief. Born in Pittsburgh in 1927, Gam made her Broadway stage debut in 1946. At one point she was married to film and tv director Sidney Lumet.
She was notable for her friendship with Grace Kelly, and was a bridesmaid at her 1956 marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. While all this is most interesting but to us, Gam will always be most cherished for her spectacular debut as that hot siren across the hall in The Thief.