Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Burglar (1957, USA)

(Spoiler alert.) It can be really surprising sometimes to discover what even the most hack director managed to deliver at the beginning of his career.
Director Paul Wendkos ended his career as a television hack in 1999, some 42 years after his debut feature film, the forgotten b-flick The Burglar. In the years between, aside from all the filmic refuse he did for television, he still did an occasional feature film—including Gidget (1959), Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), Gidgit Goes Rome (1963) and the mildly diverting Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969). But for the most part, after Wendkos carved himself a niche in the world of television in the early 60s, he dug his nails deeply into the realm of television movies for good, directing such unmemorable TV flicks like the Elizabeth Montgomery vehicles The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975) and An Act of Violence (1979), the "factual" The Ordeal of Patty Hearst (1979) and the dull remake of The Bad Seed (1985). Taking the quality of his extensive television output in review, one would be severely taxed to believe him capable of achieving the amount of energy and creativity to be found in The Burglar, a truly watchable and totally forgotten odd-ball crime film.
Could it be that Don Malkames, the cinematographer of The Burglar is the true creative eye behind the film? Malkames, who died at 82 in Yonkers, NY in November 1986, never really had that big of a career, but his low-budget roots probably gave him a lot of experience on how to get something for nothing. He started his career in the early forties doing camera in the lucrative genre of Yiddish films before moving into the equally respected genre of black films. By the fifties he had graduated to such classier products like the early girls-behind-bars film So Young So Bad (1950), but soon after The Burglar (1957) his name pretty much disappeared. One thing for sure, the best and strongest aspect of The Burglar is neither David Goodis' script (from his own novel of the same name) nor the acting, but rather the interesting and at times extremely artsy camera work—a sure sign that whoever was behind the camera knew what he was doing. (Sorry, Paul, but somehow it is hard to credit this film to you.)
Giving Orson Wells' Citizen Kane (1941) a direct nod, The Burglar opens with a newsreel narrating something about Red China, women on pogo sticks, and a longer in-depth piece about a very rich medium that can't resist showing off her very expensive bracelet. Sol Kaplan's bombastic music score blares out as we see Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea), the film's anti-hero leaving the movie theatre where he had been watching the newsreel and wander down the lonely, dark and alienating streets of Philadelphia as the credits slide in and out of the screen. He and his cohorts want to pull their big last hall before "retiring" and have their sight on the bracelet. With the help of the young and beautiful Gladdin (Jayne Mansfield), the daughter of the man who taught him his trade and who's death he accidentally caused, the heist is a success. (One of the film’s more delightful visual jokes has the camera looking out from the interior of the robbed wall safe as the medium walks back and forth brushing her teeth, oblivious to the theft.) Nat wants to hold onto the bracelet until the heat has died down, so the four sit around getting on each others nerves in a depressing gray house next to a busy railroad. (There is a wonderful scene that is almost too funny to believe of Baylock (Peter Capell) waxing endlessly about his dreams of finally retiring in South America as the background mambo music keeps getting louder.) Nat finally decides that Gladdin should leave the dank nest and sends her off to Atlantic City, where she quickly meets up and falls in love with a man whose face is never shown. After unexpectedly finding comfort and companionship with Dela (Martha Vickers), Nat learns that the lady not only has a past but is actually in on a plot to steal the bracelet from him—and that the man she is in cohorts is the man that has enraptured Gladdin. Nat rushes to Atlantic City, his partners in tow, but along the way Dohmer (Mickey Shaughnessy) buys the dust after blowing the face off a patrolman. Dumping the hot car, the surviving two set out on foot and finally take refuge in a deserted fisherman's shack. When Nat warns Gladdin that her new squeeze Charlie (Stewart Bradley) not out for love, she spurns him. Charlie then shows up at the shack and kills Baylock, leaving Della with a gun as he goes to get the bracelet from Gladdin. Della, now in love with Nat, lets Nat leave to call Gladdin, who meets up with him at the amusement park with a homicidally bent Charlie hot on her heels....
Of course, as fitting to the general hopeless and alienated tone of the film, the ending of The Burglar is pure depression and everyone either dies or loses everything.
As always, there are a few flaws to be found in The Burglar, but luckily they are relatively easy to overlook because the sum manages to be so much better than the parts. Nonetheless, it must be said that Duryea is badly cast as Nat. Aside from being too old for the part—an obvious twenty years older than the supposed 8 odd years that should separate him from Gladdin—he fails to give Nat's existentialist depression any depth. One-time orphan or not, responsible for the death of his "adopted" Dad or not, Nat never seems to be as much of a fatalist loaded down with weltschmerz and angst as he does simply seem to be a kill-joy. Also, there is no real reason that three men take part in the robbery, as two would have been enough. Likewise, there is no logical reason the three of them stick together all the time, especially since they all seem to trust each other implicitly (Nat is allowed regularly to walk off carrying the loot and neither of his partners even consider that he might simply disappear with it). Later, Nat's statement that Charlie knew of their robbery plans in advance are unconvincing as there is no logical way for him to have found out about them. Also, truth be told, as good as it is, Sol Kaplan music is often overly bombastic, its volume incongruent to the overall depressing nature of the film.
But those are mere quibbles to the simple fact that The Burglar is one damned fine piece of noir. Heavily imbued with a feeling of futility, the creative and oft bizarre camerawork lends The Burglar an additional eccentric appeal—as does some of the casting. If Dan Duryea—remembered from his untold number of appearances in junk as well as in numerous classics such as Winchester ’73 (1950), The Flight of the Phoenix (1966), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957) and the flawed but deft Fritz Land semi-classics Ministry of Fear (1944), The Woman in The Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945)—seems badly cast, the others do not. Mickey "I-know-that-face-from-somewhere" Shaughnessy is excellent as the sleazy Dohmer, who meets his end (with eyes wide open) in the back seat of a car and, likewise, the forgotten German character actor Peter Capell is perfect as the whining and desperate loser Baylock. But the true presence of the film is without a doubt the inimitable Jayne Mansfield at the start of her fame, long before she slid down the ladder and into cheap European productions (and, eventually, under the axis of a truck on a Louisiana highway). Not yet the cheap, easy and innately tragic joke she was eventually to become, Mansfield's measurements (like her eye brows) might be unbelievable, but her acting isn't: she is totally effective as she sashays across the screen in her costarring roll as Gladdin. Actually, although released between her more famous parts in The Girl Can't Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), The Burglar was filmed earlier two years earlier in 1955, the same year that she graced the pages of Playboy as the Playmate of February. Why the film was shelved so long is a bit hard to understand, for even if it is far from the best of its type, The Burglar is nonetheless a fine piece of low-budget noir that both fans and non-fans of the genre should find worth watching.

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