The Burglar (1957) Paul Wendkos
Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III DVD (1:30)
How many movies give the bassoon soloist a screen credit?
The Burglar is one of those film noir titles you hardly ever hear anyone talking about despite the fact that it features a David Goodis script (based on his 1953 novel of the same name) and stars film noir icon Dan Duryea. It also features Jayne Mansfield, which may surprise you in ways you hadn’t expected….
Duryea plays Nat Harbin, the leader of a quartet of small-time burglars in Philadelphia. The group also features fence expert Baylock (Peter Capell), a heavy named Dohmer (Mickey Shaughnessy) and a young woman named Gladden (Mansfield) who cases their jobs, including the mansion of a fake spiritualist (Phoebe Mackay) who owns a necklace worth $150,000. Gladden tells the boys they’ll have 15 minutes to sneak in and grab the goods. Although we’re not talking about a job on the level of Rififi or The Asphalt Jungle, the heist scenes are quite suspenseful, especially when a police cruiser stops to investigate the gang’s parked car.
While the burglars impatiently wait for things to cool off, we learn that Nat and Gladden have a strong connection, but maybe not the one you’re thinking of. Mansfield has some wonderful scenes playing Gladden in a way that will probably surprise you and will no doubt make many regret that she was rarely given a chance to do any real acting, which she certainly could do.
Speaking of people who could do things, consider Duryea’s performance, which is both familiar and ground-breaking. By 1957, audiences had seen the actor portray weasel-like criminals many, many times, but here we see Duryea not as a weasel, but rather a man caught up in something he can’t control, largely because of a vow he once made that he’s determined to honor at any cost. Having seen the film, I’d love to read the Goodis novel to see how the writer reveals aspects of Harbin compared to the pacing of the film.
Things become more complicated (but no less interesting) with the appearance of a femme fatale (Martha Vickers), a crooked cop (Stewart Bradley), and an Atlantic City setting. The Burglar is all set to present itself as a fine film noir, but is sabotaged by an unsatisfactory ending. The movie also suffers from a bad release date: its story feels more at home in the late 1940s/early 1950s and probably would’ve been more impressive during those years, especially with an enthusiastic first-time director like Paul Wendkos (who spent most of his career in TV). By 1955, when the film was shot, many aspects of The Burglar were perhaps too familiar to moviegoers. The film actually sat on the shelf for two years, finally getting a release to cash in on the popularity of Jayne Mansfield. Although not a great film, The Burglar is a good one, deserving both rediscovery and reassessment.
Next: Olivia de Havilland and Olivia de Havilland
Photos: Fine Art America, Doctor Macro, The Silver Screen Oasis