Neat, tidy little "B" rip-off of Pickup on South Street. M-G-M's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Limited Edition Collection, which caters to movie fans looking for hard-to-find library and cult titles, has released The Cat Burglar, the 1961 Gene Corman indie production released by United Artists, and starring a host of familiar "B" movie and television faces: Jack Hogan, June Kenney, John Baer, Will J. White, Bruno VeSota, Tommy Ivo, and Billie Bird. Written by actor Leo Gordon, and directed by ace journeyman William Witney, The Cat Burglar doesn't improve on director Samuel Fuller's more famous noir classic...but it moves quickly at 65 minutes, and tells its familiar story with some punch. No bonuses for this full-screen black and white transfer.
Third-rate cat burglar L.A. Jack Coley (Jack Hogan) boosts his way into petite blonde knock-out Nan Baker's (June Kenney, Earth vs. the Spider, Attack of the Puppet People) apartment just in time to have her come home...and take a shower. Sneaking a peep and swiping her purse and briefcase, Jack returns to his crummy rented room just in time to have his obnoxious landlady Mrs. Prattle (Billie Bird) hit him up for the overdue rent. Fobbing her off with more promises, he buys another day's rent before he looks through Nan's stuff and discovers...nothing: just a cheap little locket and some papers, one of which he tears out of a notebook and uses as a shim for his rickety chest of drawers. Meanwhile, Nan discovers her bag is gone and immediately calls businessman Alan Sheridan (John Baer), her boyfriend, who tells her not to call the bulls. Apparently, Nan went to New Mexico to retrieve those papers especially for Reed, and he needs them back pronto. What Nan doesn't know is that a spy ring was recently smashed in New Mexico, and Reed is mixed up with espionage agents Reed Taylor (Gregg Palmer) and Leo Joseph (Will J. White), who want those papers back...or else. Jack thinks tracking down the papers will lead to a fast buck, but soon realizes he needs those papers to save his life.
Not a neglected or overlooked classic "B" by any means, The Cat Burglar is a solid, workmanlike little programmer that aspires to tell its, um...appropriated story as quickly and efficiently as possible. Obviously, you can't say much about The Cat Burglar's originality, since it's such an blatant (and uncredited) steal from Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street (anyone know if there was Guild arbitration on this one?). Prolific screenwriter and actor Leo Gordon does tweak the story into stronger noir territory than Pickup by SPOILER ALERT ending the movie on a tragic note (as opposed to Pickup's tacked-on happy ending). But it's tough to make a case that The Cat Burglar is more noir than "thriller" or "spy film," since director Witney doesn't seem to have the time or the money to do anything "extra" but tell his slight story with a little verve and dispatch.
The Cat Burglar opens cool and snazzy with tough-looking Hogan from TV's Combat (he's like a cross between Steve McQueen and Paul Mantee) making the right moves as a cat burglar creeping along the roofline of a modernistic L.A. apartment compound, as jazz legend Buddy Bregman's hep-cat jazz riffs give Witney's nighttime visuals some snap. But right away, you can spot why The Cat Burglar isn't a "lost" classic but rather a proficient quickie: why, exactly, does Hogan need to prowl around and drop down from the roof? With the way he's walking around, out on the landings, checking constantly for someone who might have spotted him, he's showing himself as much as if he just walked up the dark stairs from the parking lot or pool area (why not just walk up like a tenant in the big, anonymous place?). The visuals are cool, and Hogan has the moves down right, but it's not a well thought-out or designed sequence, a problem that plagues the rest of the film if you look at the story too closely. By the time he slips into Nan's apartment, Bregman's music gets out of control, going into stripper mode when ice cream sundae-perfect Kenney starts to undress (this is where this little "B" needed some more snap). It's a fun, pulpy moment―and there's nothing wrong with that―but it's too brief and abbreviated. If you want to intimate smut in a "B," then don't be circumspect about it. Show it.
At only 65 minutes, some of which is still "padding," The Cat Burglar takes some shortcuts in the script that don't help, either. A good example is Nan's contact with Muskie (the excellent Bruno VeSota of so many cult movies: Daddy-O, War of the Satellites, A Bucket of Blood, Attack of the Giant Leeches, The Wasp Woman, and of course, as director of the incomparable Invasion of the Star Creatures). Unless I missed something...how did Nan know to go to Muskie for help finding her thief? She just shows up at his apartment, knowing he's an underground contact? You don't usually expect a lot of exposition in barely-feature length "Bs;" luckily, Witney keeps things moving―not so that you don't notice the holes―you do―but so that you don't care that they're there. Witney's training was in serials and "Bs," so he's right at home with this kind of pulpy, off-the-cuff stuff. He doesn't screw around with complicated set-ups, and yet his eye is unerringly on target. Many of his frames feature relatively dynamic, nicely composed visuals unlike the ones you normally see in such cheapo offerings (some of his frames would fit right on the covers of the men's magazines so popular back then), while his action sequences are quick and to the point, as expected.
As an added bonus from Gordon's script, there's quite a bit of humorous asides in The Cat Burglar, more than you'd anticipate from this kind of programmer (or perhaps more correctly: more that succeed than you'd expect). Old vaudeville pro Bird is amusing as crotchety, grousing Mrs. Prattle ("That's 'Pray-tell!"), and Cosmo Sardo has a great bit as a rummy booster trying to sell pawn shop owner Gene Roth a stolen set of pawn broker balls (his quick "Yes, I'll take it," to a bottle of whiskey is a classic). And toothy Tommy Ivo (The Donna Reed Show, I Remember Mama) has a too-brief bit as the enthusiastic hustler son of Bird, cheerfully calling out, "Cost ya a dime!" when busted-up Hogan pathetically asks for some ice. The Cat Burglar isn't any great shakes as either spy film or noir thriller or certainly comedy...but it knows what it wants to do, and it does so without making a big deal out of it. And that's admirable for any movie.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.