Cast & Crew
A series of jewel robberies have the Paris police and insurance companies baffled. In desperation, Hoyle's Insurance Company decides to use the famous Karenina diamonds as bait to lure the thief into the open. During the auction of the diamonds, Pierre Londais outbids Odette Mauclair, an attractive young woman. Just after the sale is completed, Colonel Jackson rushes into the room and tries to buy the jewels from Pierre, but he will not sell. Back at his hotel, Pierre discovers that Odette has the suite next door and they dine together. That night, alerted by a noise, she enters Pierre's room and is met by a gloved man. Although the jewels are missing and Pierre's valet, François, is injured, Pierre refuses to call either a doctor or the police. Odette is puzzled by his attitude, and he wonders in turn why she was in his rooms that night. The next morning, Pierre reveals that the diamonds were in the false bottom of the case holding the jade he loaned her and so were not stolen. When Pierre takes an Istanbul-bound train to deliver the diamonds to a prospective buyer, Odette follows carrying a copy of the jewels. Colonel Jackson also follows Pierre to the train, and Pierre finally agrees to sell him the diamonds. When Odette expresses her surprise, he shows her a telegram in which the earlier offer for the jewels is canceled. Pierre, then confesses that he has fallen in love with Odette and asks her to return to Paris with him, When she refuses, he remains with her. Meanwhile, Colonel Jackson insures the diamonds for a great deal of money. That evening, Odette sneaks into his compartment and exchanges the fake diamonds for the real ones. Baron Von Kampf, another thief, sees her leaving Jackson's compartment and demands the jewels, but she manages to escape from him. The next morning, Jackson announces the theft of his jewels. The baron accuses Odette, who agrees to be searched by investigator Count Trentini. Out of sight of the others, she hands Trentini the jewels, revealing that she is working secretly for the police. When the rest of the train is searched without turning up the fake diamonds, Odette is convinced that Jackson robbed himself for the insurance. A look at a telegram he sent seems to confirm this theory, but then he is found dead. Pierre finds a bag containing the jewels in the seat of his compartment, but Odette refuses to believe Pierre murdered Jackson for the jewels. When she sees a man jump from the train, she pulls the emergency cord and stops the train abruptly. The man is captured and admits that he killed Jackson because he thought he was cheating him after he discovered the jewels had been replaced by fakes. He implicates another man but dies before he can name him. Through further investigation, Odette learns that Pierre was the front man, buying the jewels that were then insured by different people, so that his name was never involved. Before Pierre can be arrested, the baron steals the jewels, informing everyone that he has arranged a fatal train accident during which he will escape. Pierre shoots him, allowing the police to stop the accident. Pierre is sentenced to jail, but his sentence is suspended because of his actions on the train. Odette and Pierre leave the train together.
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)
I Am a Thief
A news item in Hollywood Reporter notes that Paul Muni was considered for the lead.