|The Burglar. Dan Duryea, Martha Vickers.|
A SFI-Filmarkivet print (Inbrottstjuven) with Swedish subtitles by Tore Metzer viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Carte blanche à Tapani Maskula), 7 June, 2013
An original big caper story, fundamentally a "vanitatum vanitas" story like all the classics of the genre.
Paul Wendkos's debut fictional feature is still impressive to watch for several reasons. This is obviously a film meant by the director to be a showcase of what he can do. The screenplay by David Goodis based on his novel is a solid genre piece with twists.
Paul Wendkos served in the Navy in WWII and had already made a documentary feature called Dark Interlude (1953).
The approach to violence is serious. Nat Harbin is a professional burglar. He never carries a gun and always avoids violence, rather using his brains, patience, and psychology. He even takes risks by simply leaving the room when threatened at gunpoint.
The documentary impulse is strong. The Rififi-style account of the burglary, which needs to be conducted in fifteen minutes, emphasizes professionalism. Also the account of the police detective work seems authentic: the patience in trying to identify Nat from photographs in the criminal register, and the police draughtsman's slow progress in getting closer and closer by drawing new versions of Nat's facial features.
The movie was largely shot on location. There is a unique perspective to the Philadelphia monuments when seen from the shadowy viewpoint of Nat, a fugitive from the law. Atlantic City becomes a hiding place because a wanted man can best hide in great anonymous crowds.
There is a special satiric insight into news information media. The pre-credit sequence is a pastiche newsreel from which Nat learns about the rich spiritualist Sister Sarah and her fabulous emerald necklace. The burglary itself needs to be conducted during the 15 minute newscast of John Facenda of whom Sister Sarah is a devotee. I like the subtle media satire in these sequences.
I also like the refined satire of the spiritualism of Sister Sarah, reputedly a seer into our spiritual unconscious, yet unable to recognize Gladden as a spy sent by the burglars' gang.
The cinematography by Don Malkames is constantly exciting, ranging from solid documentary insight to expressive views such as the long shadows of the burglars on Sister Sarah's lawn and the "subjective" viewpoint of the safe deposit box as Sister Sarah discovers that her emeralds are gone. When rogue cops start to round up the burglar's gang their faces are not shown. The conclusion at the Steel Pier auditorium is visually powerful. There are also impressive instances of the subjective camera, such as in the tragic ending when the rogue cop shoots Nat.
Train shots are used as rhytmical, recurrent inserts.
The big band jazz score by Sol Kaplan is full of excitement, even going over the top, but it works.
Paul Wendkos elicits unusual performances from his actors. Jayne Mansfield is "plain Jayne" here. Dan Duryea shakes his usual smirk off.
Jayne Mansfield, hired by the producer Louis W. Kellman, got her first starring role as Gladden in The Burglar shot in the summer of 1955. The release of the film was intentionally delayed into 1957, when Mansfield had expectedly become a big Broadway and Hollywood star. She acts here in low key, in contrast to her Tashlinesque breakthrough roles. Gladden has fallen in love with Nat, her protector, but the feeling is not reciprocated, since Nat feels he's like a big brother to her. But "I'm a woman, flesh and blood, I've got feelings, and night after night I have needed attention". Gladden is easy prey to the Atlantic City boyfriend Charlie, who is actually one of the rogue cops who are after the emerald loot.
The crime intrigue is not the main point of the movie. The Burglar is a psychological story of Nat Harbin, an orphan, rescued from the orphanage by a stepfather, Gerald, who turned out to be a burglar. Gerald taught Nat everything, including the code of no violence ("No gun. You do a job, you do it clean".). He made Nat give him a word to "always take care" of his daughter Gladden. Three years later Gerald was shot during a burglary. There is even something Gatsbyesque in the Nat-Gerald relationship. Perhaps something even more intimate ("it went deeper than that"), but the Della relationship at least partly covers such assumptions.
Nat has become a good reader of people, with a strong insight in psychology. When he meets Della at the bar he soon gets to hear her full life story. Although Della is an accomplice of the rogue cops she would be willing to step on Nat's side if he would want so. Made during the Production Code The Burglar comes close to recognizing certain facts of life whose presentation was banned by the Code. ("I was 17. I went to Chicago, city of opportunity. Sir Galahad ran a model agency, that's what he called it. There was a bunch of creeps with cameras." - "I met an eligible bachelor, a nice guy. We got married, we were happy. Then some joker showed him one of the special photographs. He did not even bother to hit me.").
Martha Vickers gives one of the unusual performances in The Burglar. She had been Carmen Sternwood in Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep, but Della is a much more complex and interesting character. "Who hurt you?" is Nat's question to Della, who comes from a broken home, a big family in a two room apartment in Youngstown, Ohio.
Nat's daring intrigue in Atlantic City, seemingly crazy, is based on strong psychological intuition and a chess sense. A strategy without violence from his side.
The Orson Welles inspiration, evident in the opening (bringing to mind Citizen Kane), is reconfirmed in the ending, which takes place at the fairground and at a gallery of horrors (evoking The Lady from Shanghai). These are hommages, not cases of imitation.
There is much to admire in The Burglar, but the strongest contribution is that of Dan Duryea as the protagonist Nat. This is the best performance I have seen from Duryea. He was always good as a sneering, creepy figure in many classic films noirs, for instance in films by Fritz Lang. There is nothing of the sort here. Nat Harbin is a tragic figure, caught in a career and a lifestyle of crime, trying to prevent violence, trying to protect Gladden from the advances of his accomplices, a conflicted character who seems to be halfway wanting to get caught, of which even the police has a hunch.
Dan Duryea plays Nat straight, without a sneer. His Nat Harbin is a memorable portrait of suffering and agony.
The definition of light is fine and does justice to the ambitious cinematography of Don Malkames in this vintage print.