The 1957 film noir The Burglar is the kind of film that I'm almost compelled to embrace and champion as a lost curiosity. Directed by Paul Wendkos, who went on from here to direct a ton of television, and adapted by David Goodis (Dark Passage) from his own novel, The Burglar is a bizarre, almost impressionistic take on the usual small-time heist drama. I say almost, as you'd be hard-pressed to make a case for its disjointed quirks being intentional. When it comes down to it, The Burglar is a bit of a mess.
Dan Duryea leads the low-rent vehicle as Nat, an equally low-rent crook who spies a wealthy woman's jewelled necklace in a newsreel. He and his crew track the lady down, and they send Gladden (Jayne Mansfield) to case her place. Once they know where the necklace is located and the lady's routines, the two other robbers (Peter Capell and Mickey Shaughnessy) stand on lookout while Nat climbs into the second-story window and cracks the woman's bedroom safe. Despite a narrow brush with the cops, the theft comes off. The high-profile target brings the heat, however, and Nat insists they lay low and wait to fence the ice until it's cooled off.
It's a smart plan, but a hard one to execute, particularly as the bad guys all start to go stir crazy rather quickly. Baylock (Capell) is wanted on other charges and is eager to get out of the country; Dohmer (Shaughnessy) is a mouth-breathing dope who can't keep his eyes--or hands--off of Gladden. Nat is protectful of the girl, so he sends her away to Atlantic City to wait it out there. She ends up cavorting on the beach in her bikini (because, you know, she's Jayne Mansfield) and hooking up with a new fella (Stewart Bradley). Nat also winds up meeting a new lady, a tough gal on the make (Martha Vickers). As it turns out, neither of these lovers found each other by accident, and Nat and the boys have to race against the clock and dodge police barricades to get to Jersey before the whole plan goes kablooey.
If you think that sounds like a lot of story, well, it's actually kind of not. The Burglar has a rather small plot when it comes down to it, and Wendkos and crew spend a lot of time hanging around, mulling over the minor story points, repeating scenes and arguments until it's time to move on to the next set-up. It's all rather bizarre. Wendkos shares co-editing credit with Herta Horn, who apparently worked on no other movie before or after The Burglar. Together they whack at the narrative with what one would guess is a meat cleaver and gardening shears. The story jumps from scene to scene, often leaving out crucial connective details, though there is cause to wonder if they were ever there to begin with. A few sequences at the flophouse double up on each other, arguments between the batty burglars repeating as if it's the first time any of them had the same thought. Other story elements make little sense. Nat's sudden ability to roam the city, for instance, making it easy for his would-be girlfriend to find him even as the cops seem to have no clue as to where to look, while Baylock and Dohmer remain under house arrest, is an act of narrative convenience with no grounding in reality.
Yet, for as clumsy and ham-fisted as The Burglar can be, there are also daffy bravura moments, particularly in terms of visual approach. Cinematographer Don Malkames has a vivacious, unhinged filming style, developed as the cameraman on multiple musical revues, capturing live R&B and rock-and-roll. He is a master of artfully composed frames, preferring extreme angles and odd points of view. It's often hard to predict where his camera will end up. When Nat sends Gladden away, Malkames shoots from the ceiling, almost as if we were looking at footage from a security camera. In other sequences, he prefers odd perspectives--sitting in the driver's seat inside a car, peering out from the empty safe as the unsuspecting victim paces back and forth, taking a punch directly to the face. While the mis-en-scene doesn't always line up, it almost doesn't matter. Malkames has a command of both the beautiful and the grotesque.
Unfortunately, that's not enough to recommend The Burglar outright. The film was such a creative flop, it reportedly sat on the shelf for two years until Columbia saw an opportunity to capitalize on Mansfield's burgeoning fame. (Pete Kelly's Blues was shot just before The Burglar, and 1957 also saw the release of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Kiss Them For Me.) Mansfield is certainly beautiful here, though her looks are played down in comparison to the bombshell image that was being cultivated for her. Her acting chops are less impressive. Only Duryea is on point, finding a solid footing for his tough-guy character despite the imbalanced production. By the end, he looks about as confused as the rest of us.
The Sony Choice Collection manufacture-on-demand release of The Burglar should receive no complaints in terms of audio/visual presentation. The black-and-white widescreen image looks excellent, with a nice tonal balance, decent resolution, and no obvious instances of print damage. It's one of the better m.o.d. discs I've seen, honestly.
The original soundtrack is mixed for mono and sounds very good. The music is free of distortion, even when played loud, and the dialogue is clear.
Rent It. Paul Wendkos' mid-'50s production of The Burglar is an odd-duck film noir. This story of a quartet of crooks whose lives go topsy-turvy after a big score has plenty of style, but not a whole lot of sense. Dan Duryea leads the way as the rock-jawed robber, and young Jayne Mansfield is certainly pleasing to the eye, but the script and the editing are all over the place. The only thing making up for the sketchy presentation is the expressive cinematography. Don Malkames creates some impressive shots, and he often puts his camera in unexpected places, but even he can't get over Wendkos' clumsy handling of his material.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.