The Burglar

The Burlgar (1957) movie poster

(1957) director Paul Wendkos
viewed: 08/31/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

A superior, off-beat, semi-obscure film noir, The Burglar played at the Castro Theatre as part of their “Blonde Bombshells” series, for which The Burglar qualified because of the buxom young Miss Jayne Mansfield.  But I had wanted to see it because it’s an adaptation of my favorite crime novel by the brilliant David Goodis.  In fact, the screenplay was adapted by Goodis himself.  But what I wasn’t expecting was how strange, quirky, and fun a movie it would turn out to be.

Directed with great funky imagination by Paul Wendkos, the film is a potpourri of sights and sounds, character and invention.  The bleak and fatalistic novel is transformed, not adhering purely to Goodis’ dark poetry, but given an almost comic vibe at times.  Scenes of melodrama play almost as comedy, and the sense that its not utterly unintentional comedy comes from the playful direction.  Case in point, toward the film’s finale, which takes place on the Atlantic City boardwalk, having entered a fun house area, an animated mannikin figure intones severely, “We…the dead…welcome you…”  It falls between eerie and hilarious, but in a cool way.

The story is about a burglar, played by Dan Duryea, and his small gang who steal a very fancy necklace, but are hunted by the police and also by other criminals, while they try to hole up til the heat cools.  Mansfield plays Gooden, Duryea’s adopted “little sister” who he is saddled with since the passing of their adoptive father, a burglar who taught them the business, but also taught them kindness and humanity.  And then there is Della (Martha Vickers), the dark, alcoholic, adult woman for whom Duryea’s burglar falls.  The cast is really good, particularly Duryea and his two criminal buddies, all played with great “character” style.

There are so many little things that make the movie constantly surprising and fun.  The finale at the boardwalk is probably the great highlight, but the film was shot in both Atlantic City and Philadelphia (also where the book was set) and there are keen charms of location shooting.  In the scene in which the burglary takes place, the camera is set “looking out” through the safe in the wall, now left wide open by the burglar.  The audience sees the unaware heiress pass by a few times before she looks into the camera/safe and screams.  Quite funny that.

Wendkos also uses sound throughout the whole of the film, either the rather loud and dramatic musical score, even during scenes of meaningful dialogue, but also all types of “natural” ambient sounds, waves at the beach, seagulls, ticking of clocks.  It’s almost like the soundtrack of the film has its own whole little story to tell.

I’d love to see the film again.  It was odd and fun, dark and not a little bit weird.

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