The Thief (1952 film)

The Thief is a 1952 American film noir crime film directed by Russell Rouse and starring Ray Milland. The film is noted for having no spoken dialogue; the only dialogue present in the film is represented through closeup shots of two telegrams.[2]

The Thief
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRussell Rouse
Produced byClarence Greene
Screenplay byClarence Greene
Russell Rouse
StarringRay Milland
Music byHerschel Burke Gilbert
CinematographySam Leavitt
Edited byChester W. Schaeffer
Harry Popkin Productions
Fran Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • October 10, 1952 (1952-10-10) (United States)
  • October 15, 1952 (1952-10-15) (New York City)
Running time
86 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1 million[1]


Ray Milland plays Dr. Allan Fields, a nuclear physicist who works for the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, D.C.. But Fields is also a spy working for an unnamed foreign power.

Through an elaborate series of plans and devices ("tradecraft"), Fields, as ordered by his "case officer",[3] takes sets of photos of top-secret documents, using a Minox camera, and passes these through a vast network of foreign-power "couriers"[4] to New York City, and thereafter overseas to an enemy country. The latest canister of microfilm which Fields sends out is intercepted by authorities after a courier is killed in a freak traffic accident in Manhattan, with the undeveloped microfilm canister in his hand. The FBI develops the microfilm, analyzes its contents and constructs a list of probable suspects within the AEC, one of whom is the "custodian"[5] of the subject document, and who is taken away (which Fields observes) to be interrogated at FBI headquarters.

The custodian having apparently been cleared of espionage charges, the custodian's subordinates, including Fields and his immediate AEC colleagues, have all come under suspicion by the FBI, and agents are assigned to "tail" each one, but it quickly becomes apparent that Fields is the "prime suspect". Fields' case officer becomes aware of this, too, and sends him a "flash message", in a Western Union telegram, to destroy all his "spy-craft" apparatus and to leave immediately for a "safe house"[6] in New York City.

Now scared and paranoid, Fields stays overnight in the safe house, a cheap hotel, waiting for a signal from his case officer on the hotel's hall phone. After Fields has been signaled by his case officer, his trail eventually leads to the Empire State Building. While at the 86th-floor observation deck, Fields meets his contact, Miss Philips. The alert FBI agent spots Fields and pursues Fields who climbs even higher, reaching the 102nd-floor observation deck, and, finally, the spire where Fields fights off the agent, causing the agent to plummet to his death. Fields exits the building with money and false identity documents, his "escape",[7] which will get him out of the country, but he has been shaken by the sight of the dead agent, and feels remorse.

Fields finally breaks down after realizing what he has done, destroys his escape, and surrenders to the FBI the next day.


  • Ray Milland as Allan Fields (Nuclear physicist/spy for the Soviet Union)
  • Martin Gabel as Mr. Bleek (Soviet agent/case officer)
  • Harry Bronson as Harris (FBI agent)
  • Rita Vale as Miss Philips (Soviet agent/courier)
  • Rex O'Malley as Beal (Soviet agent/courier)
  • Rita Gam as the Girl (MacGuffin)
  • John McKutcheon as Dr. Linstrum
  • Joe Conlin as Walters


Critical response

When the film was released, A. W. Weiler, the film critic at The New York Times gave the film a good review, writing, "Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse, an enterprising pair of film artisans, are trying to prove that some movie yarns are better seen than heard. Their effort is a successful tour de force. For, generally speaking, theirs is a spy melodrama in which language would appear to be redundant ... aside from its novelty, The thief has its fair share of attributes. The fine photography of cinematographer Sam Leavitt, whose cameras have captured the lights of actual, and familiar, locations in Washington and New York, contributes strongly to the tensions of the hunt. The musical score by Herschel Gilbert is insidiously suggestive in creating atmosphere as well as indicating the emotions of the principals. And, above all, Russell Rouse, who also directed, has gotten a sensitive and towering performance from Ray Milland in the title role."[8]

The staff at Variety magazine reviewed the film positively. They wrote, "This has an offbeat approach to film story-telling (a complete absence of dialog), a good spy plot and a strong performance by Ray Milland. The film is not soundless. The busy hum of a city is a cacophonous note, a strident-sounding telephone bell plays an important part and, overall, there’s the topnotch musical score by Herschel Burke Gilbert, sometimes used almost too insistently to build a melodramatic mood and in other spots softly emphasizing and making clear the dumb action of the players."[9]

More recently, film critic Dennis Schwartz gave the film a mixed review. He wrote, "Russell Rouse (The Oscar) directs and co-writes this unique but tedious spy/Red Scare thriller set in New York City ... What we get is a tense mood piece through the excellent dark visuals delivered by cinematographer Sam Leavitt. It shows a lonely and alienated unsympathetic man on-the-run, who is trapped in a shadowy world of chaos but is not fleshed out in his character so we never become concerned with his plight as a human interest story."[10]


Academy Awards
1953Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy PictureHerschel Burke GilbertNominated
Golden Globe Awards
1953Best Cinematography - Black and WhiteSam LeavittNominated
1953Best Motion Picture - DramaNominated
1953Best Motion Picture Actor - DramaRay MillandNominated
1953Best ScreenplayClarence Greene, Russell RouseNominated
1953Most Promising Newcomer - FemaleRita GamNominated


  1. 'Top Box-Office Hits of 1952', Variety, January 7, 1953
  2. The Thief at the TCM Movie Database.
  3. case officer,, retrieved 27 April 2014
  4. courier,, retrieved 27 April 2014
  5. custodian,, retrieved 29 April 2014
  6. safe house,, retrieved 3 May 2014
  7. escape,, retrieved 31 April 2014
  8. Weiler, A.W. The New York Times, film review, October 16, 1952. Accessed: July 15, 2013.
  9. Variety film review, 1952. Accessed: July 15, 2013.
  10. Schwartz, Dennis. Ozus' World Movie Reviews, film review, February 24, 2005. Accessed: July 15, 2013.
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