I Spy With My Little Eye

He was closer to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg than George Smiley or James Bond. In THE THIEF (1952), Ray Milland stars as Dr. Allan Fields, a nuclear physicist spying for some unnamed foreign country (you can assume Russia). As the Feds close in, he goes on the run, all the while increasingly racked with guilt. The film is an effective film noir with a none-too-subtle propagandist element that is certainly understandable, given the country’s obsession with the McCarthy hearings at the time. Sam Leavitt’s stark black-and-white cinematography and the excellent use of outdoor and indoor locales in Washington, D.C. and New York City contribute to the film’s documentary feel.

What makes this film such a curio is that it is basically a silent movie. There are sound effects and a couple of screams but not one word of dialogue. As such, Herschel Burke Gilbert’s music must convey Fields’ internal dialogue, all the while ratcheting up the film’s tension and drama.

The main titles (reminiscent of DOUBLE INDEMNITY in look and sound) begin with the silhouette of a man walking toward the audience to a dissonant fanfare followed by a low flute theme with very faint strings and timpani keeping time in the background. The French horn takes over in a quasi-dramatic vein, accompanied by pizzicato strings and high violins.

The low flute is effectively used throughout the film to convey Fields’ loneliness, while eight-note runs of staccato sixteenth notes continually signal danger lurking around every corner. A three-note figure expands to a steady fever pitch as Allan searches his apartment for bugs, while Fields’ nightmare sequences weave together the score’s major themes in a dramatic medley. Gilbert uses a fugue for the chase through the back alleys.

Since the film is dependent on the music, it is perhaps not surprising that Gilbert received an Oscar nomination for the score, even though the film did nothing at the box office. (The entire film is available on YouTube through the video below.) But any of the other five potential nominees on Oscar’s shortlist—COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA and MY COUSIN RACHEL (both Franz Waxman), PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE (Miklos Rozsa), THE QUIET MAN (Victor Young), THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO (Bernard Herrmann)—might have been a better choice. He also received Oscar nominations for the title song to THE MOON IS BLUE (1953) and his adaptation of Bizet’s music to CARMEN JONES in 1954.

Gilbert is a relatively little known name, even among Golden Age fans, though fans of television Westerns will be familiar with his music for THE RIFLEMAN. Taken on its own, the score for THE THIEF is effective, if a little obvious at times. But taken in context of the era in which it was written, the fear instilled by the music continues to resonate.

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