Some years ago, one of the three over-the-air tv networks (we believed it was NBC) decided to experiment by airing a National Football League Sunday game — without dialogue.
That is, the only sounds relating the action to the home audience came from microphones situated right on the field. No announcers were involved. None. The sounds you heard were the sounds of the actual game in progress. The grunts, the hits, the swearing, everything.
This bold experiment didn’t last, and those prattling sportscasters were soon returned to the broadcast booth to narrate and filter the on-field action. But it was nice while it lasted.
What brings this to mind is The Thief, a highly underrated 1952 film noir that stars Ray Milland, a busy working actor without great artistic pretensions who developed into a big star. (There’s Ray above, panicked in the upper reaches of the Empire State Building.)
Milland did not harbor acting aspirations as Reginald Truscott-Jones, born in rural Wales in 1905. For much of his early life he gave serious thought to making a career out of the military, specifically the cavalry since he early on developed into an excellent horseman. But, he fell into acting although he never felt quite secure in his abilities in his early movies both in England and in Hollywood.
Milland was a real workhorse, and 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 1945’s The Lost Weekend.
Milland then began to take himself more seriously as an actor. A good thing too since he walked off with the best actor Oscar for his role as dipsomaniac writer Don Birnam in 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, a film-noir-style sex goddess mysteriously appears and a self atoning denoument makes things right.
We can say The Thief is on the surface just another 1950’s-era anti-Communist propaganda movie. But Milland’s acting skills and solid direction from Russell Rouse elevate the proceedings to much more. 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. Rather, the plot is driven only by visuals and sound effects. No spoken lines, none. Ray Milland in this picture is completely speechless.
For the most part, this “experiment” actually works.
What works completely is a brief but searingly erotic turn by Rita Gam, 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 terrific.
The Thief is not a great picture, but it is a very good one. By skipping dialogue completely the picture could have wound up as only an interesting experimental footnote. But thanks to solid execution, it is a lot more, an undiscovered gem.
For Milland, it was all in a day’s work. Just another picture. The Thief doesn’t even merit a line in the actor’s 1974 autobiography, Ray Milland: Wide-Eyed in Babylon.