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The Burglar (1957)

The Burglar (1957), a sweaty, tawdry pulp crime thriller set in the seedy lower depths of low-rent crooks and raw passions, was released as the classic studio system -- and the era of prime film noir -- was coming to an end. It both looks back to the tales of down-and-out criminals in a world of shifting loyalties and betrayals and forward to the more lurid suggestions of sixties movies and the stark imagery and striking location shooting more common to independently-made films.

Novelist David Goodis, author of such classics as Dark Passage (which was turned into a 1947 classic with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) and Down There (transformed by Francois Truffaut into the nouvelle vague masterpiece of doom Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), adapted his own novel for the screen, and Paul Wendkos, a documentary filmmaker and a fellow Philadelphian, made his feature debut directing the film. Bringing it even closer to home, Wendkos shot the film largely in Philadelphia in the summer of 1955 (Wendkos captures the sweltering atmosphere of the city in summer) and even used the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra to perform the score.

The great character actor Dan Duryea centers the film with an easy, almost world-weary confidence as Nat Harbin, a career criminal and veteran safecracker who steals a priceless necklace and then holes up in a dump of a safe house in a seedy part of the city with his not-altogether-trustworthy gang. The voluptuous Jayne Mansfield was a rising starlet in the breathy Marilyn Monroe mold when she was cast in the lead and she oozes sexual restlessness as Gladden, who cases their jobs and moons over Nat in their downtime. Mickey Shaughnessy, best known as the cellmate mentor to Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock (1957), is the gang's muscle, Dohmer, and he constantly ogles and paws the shapely Gladden in the close quarters of their hideout.

Duryea ostensibly plays a 35-year-old safecracker but was in reality almost 40 when he made the film and the weary resignation in his performance makes him look every inch his age. It also makes him a believably cool customer when he has to bluff his way past a patrolman with the loot in his pocket and it adds a poignant edge to the sexual tensions-he is in love with Gladden but he's also both father figure and protective big brother. All those conflicted emotions, added to the glaring age difference, finally pushes him to send Gladden to Atlantic City while he slips into the company of Della (Martha Vickers), a worldly woman he meets in a bar. Gladden, meanwhile, is wooed in Atlantic City by a mystery man whose identity is hidden even from the audience, a sure bet that he's got ulterior motives.

By the 1950s, most crime thrillers were moving away from the stylized, shadowy romanticism of forties film noir classics and more toward a realist aesthetic influenced by films like The Naked City (1948). The Burglar begins in that mode, with a newsreel that establishes their target and an extended, largely wordless robbery sequence that observes every step of the job, but then moves into a more baroque style of stark sets, extreme angles, and stylized pulp dialogue. Realism gives way to the exaggerated images and explosive energy of The Lady from Shanghai (1947, a chase through a fun house on Atlantic City's Steel Pier all but makes the inspiration obvious) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), but it's repressed desire rather than greed and violence that powers this hothouse thriller.

Wendkos' jagged style has the self-conscious quality of a young filmmaker anxious to show off his talent. He described the film as "experimental, ambitious, and hard to make," and reportedly shot 150,000 feet of film, an enormous amount of raw footage for a budget-minded crime film. That's one reason that the film, shot in 1955, wasn't released until 1957. But he also brings out the stir-crazy anxiety of unstable characters laying low in close quarters, the seedy corruption of bad cops on the make, and the unfulfilled longing (or in the case of Dohmer, simple lust) of characters torn between desire and devotion.

"Heartbreak and Vine," Woody Haut. Serpent's Tail, 2002.
"Goodis' Burglar Rates Rediscovery," Don Malcom. Noir City Sentinel Annual 1, 2009.
"Film Noir: The Encyclopedia," ed. Alain Silver et al. Overlook, 2010.
By Sean Axmaker



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