I Am a Thief
Early movies had a fascination with train travel that started in 1895, when the Lumiere Brothers shocked early film audiences with L'Arivee d'un train en gare de La Ciotat. Trains have provided a perfect backdrop for romance, action and intrigue, particularly with the opportunity for varied settings in the days when long-distance rail travel was as common as flying is today. Warner Bros. took advantage of this with I Am a Thief by setting most of their film on the Orient Express, a train filled with shady characters whose honesty is virtually impossible to determine.
The story starts in Paris, where jewelers have decided to deal with a recent rash of thefts by using the legendary Karenina diamonds as bait. Cortez buys the collection at auction with intentions of selling them to a dealer in Istanbul, then has to deal with Astor and Digges, both of whom have tried to buy the gems for themselves. Once the journey starts, the action really takes off, with the diamonds changing hands as rapidly as the leading characters seem to change sides. At the same time, Astor and Cortez start a race of their own to determine who can seduce whom first.
Astor was perfect for roles like this. A legendary beauty during the silent era, she had lost none of her style with the arrival of talking pictures, though her career had taken a series of unfortunate turns that led her to the Warner Bros. B-movie unit. She had been a top-paid star at Fox when sound came in, but had quit when they asked her to accept a 50-percent salary reduction because her screen voice was as yet untested. When she quit, she lost any kind of studio build-up and, with some notable exceptions, found herself consigned to B films during the '30s. Nor did it help that she was keeping up two households, her own with second husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe and her parents'. Until her marriage, in fact, her father had been collecting her pay checks and giving her an allowance. At Thorpe's urging, she started controlling her own money, but a lawsuit for nonsupport left her still turning over a hefty portion of her earnings to mom and dad. Needing money to support them, she reluctantly signed with Warner Bros., where she was consigned to the B-movie unit until she left a few years later.
A sign of I Am a Thief's B status was the decision to pull Paul Muni from the leading role before the film went into production. That left him free to prepare his role as a Mexican-American aspiring to a legal career in Bordertown (1935) and gave the role to another low-budget stalwart, Cortez. Originally packaged as the successor to Rudolph Valentino, the American-born actor had seen his star fade as the vogue for Latin lovers came to an end in the late '20s.
At least the film had a top director in Robert Florey, a French-born director who had come to Warner Bros. after the disappointment of losing out on the chance to direct Frankenstein (1931) at Universal Pictures. Despite the obvious flair for the visual he displayed in that studio's Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and Warners' later The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), he was largely consigned to B movies as well. Even then, he had a keen eye for atmosphere and a strong sense of pace that keeps I Am a Thief's 64 minutes moving rapidly.
That was not enough for contemporary critics, most of whom were tired of train-bound intrigue in films like Warners' The Silk Express (1933) and Fox's Orient Express (1934), none of which could stand comparison to the film that created that short-lived vogue, Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932). Writing in The New York Times, Frank S. Nugent spoke for many of his colleagues when he begged "Please, Sirs, won't you give up making any more 'Shanghai-Orient-Silk-I-Am-A-Thief Expresses' in 1935? We're tired of railroading." That was hardly enough to end the screen's fascination with train travel, which would continue in such classics as Lady on a Train (1945), The Narrow Margin (1952) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Nor should it blind viewers to the many charms of I Am a Thief, particularly Astor's sleek, stylish performance.
By Frank Miller
Producer: Henry Blanke
. Director: Robert Florey
Screenplay: Ralph Block & Doris Malloy
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Score: Bernhard Kaun
Cast: Mary Astor (Odette Mauclair), Ricardo Cortez (Pierre Londais), Dudley Digges (Col. Jackson), Robert Barrat (Baron Otto Von Kampf), Irving Pichel (Count Carlo Trentini), Hobart Cavanaugh (Napoleon Daudet), Ferdinand Gottschalk (M. Alexander Cassiet)