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The Thief (1952)

While the term "experimental cinema" may cause most people to think of cheap black-and-white film-festival shorts that are as indulgent as they are impenetrable, in fact just about every major advance in the history of motion pictures is the result of an experiment of some kind. D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein broadened the language of cinema with such editing techniques as cross-cutting and montage. The Vitaphone sound system — famous for giving voice to The Jazz Singer (1927) — drew crowds and forced Hollywood to re-examine how movies should be made. The use of color became widespread thanks to the Technicolor system. And while widescreen films may be common today, various technologies had been tinkered with before the format took hold in the '50s. But the world of cinema is populated by artists, not scientists — and artists often will resist the march of progress just for the sake of seeing what happens. Alfred Hitchcock created Rope (1948) without visible editing. Jean-Luc Godard used a limited budget to his own advantage in Breathless (1960) by tacking scenes together and thus creating the jump-cut. Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966) abandons its own murder-mystery plot for a predominantly silent exploration of photography and perception. And recent films such as Pulp Fiction (1994) and Memento (2001) are popular examples of narrative disruption, while Memento also uses a blend of color and black-and-white stock as a dynamic narrative device. It's not possible to detail all of history's notable film experiments, but a short list probably would include Russell Rouse's The Thief (1952), a daring project with a popular leading actor and a Cold War plot taken from the day's headlines. The only catch was that Rouse and co-scenarist Clarence Greene had written the entire script without dialogue — nobody speaks throughout the 90-minute film. Ray Milland stars in The Thief as Dr. Allan Fields, a renowned American nuclear physicist who is collecting information for the Russians. At the film's outset we learn that Fields has a set routine to contact his Russian handler, as a series of rings on the telephone indicate he is to go to a certain location and wait for instructions, while sensitive microfilm is often passed from Fields to the Russian in the reading room of the Library of Congress. Fields is skilled at the espionage work, although it preys on his conscience and it's clear he would like to shake free of the whole business. But when a Russian courier is struck by a car and the police find he had delicate information from Fields' office, every scientist in the building is shadowed by the FBI in the hopes of finding the mole in their midst.

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With cinematic experiments such as The Thief, two questions must be asked: First, does it work? And secondly, does it have value? In the first instance, Rouse's spy drama is a carefully crafted, functional bit of filmmaking, although mostly in terms of the film's elements, while not quite as much when taken as a complete experience. Rouse and Greene's intent when writing The Thief was clear enough — since the advent of the "talkies" a scant 25 years earlier, the nature of dialogue had altered what was regarded as the "pure cinema" of the silent era, as it was much more convenient to convey spoken information rather than illustrate it visually. Indeed, the greatest masters of the sound era, such as Hitchcock and Welles, embraced sound but never were willing to break with the visual nature of the medium; Welles' Citizen Kane is primarily a visual experience, while Hitchcock was more fond of sound design than dialogue (Hitch usually hired people to write his scripts rather than do it himself). In this sense, The Thief is a throwback to the age of silents, and in a perfect setting, as Rouse's spymaster world of 1950s Washington D.C. and New York City operates in the shadows, where people live solitary lives and communicate with covert glances and signals. But while it's an entertaining film with more than its share of nail-biting segments, The Thief is more of a valuable investigation of film grammar than a moviegoing experience, primarily because dialogue — integrated properly into motion pictures — is a useful thing, and there are moments in The Thief where it's clear that people should say a word or two, but don't. At these points it's obvious that the film is hampered by its self-imposed edicts, at times stretching the bounds of realism. But all budding cineastes owe it to themselves to watch The Thief at least once, and it should be required viewing in film schools everywhere as an acrobatic display of the first rule of moviemaking: Don't say it when you can show it. Image Entertainment's DVD release of The Thief offers a clean transfer in the original full-frame ratio (1.33:1), with audio in Dolby Digital 1.0. The source-print is serviceable, but collateral wear is evident. This one also is as bare-bones as it gets, since the main menu doubles as the chapter-selection display, but it's worth a spin and serious noir collectors will want this rarity their personal libraries. Keep-case.

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