The Burglar (U.S., 1957) * * *
D: Paul Wendkos
The UW Cinematheque is screening recent Columbia Pictures restorations throughout the spring semester, and the series launched last night with an overlooked late film noir from the director of Gidget, of all people. While the screening had some sound issues in the last half of the film, the picture itself was gorgeous: just about the only clue that the opening newsreel was not real but a part of the film itself was the fact that it looked so crisp and clean. It's a wry opening, with factoids about "belles lifting barbells" "every hour to keep that hourglass shape," eventually settling on an occult spiritualist and her obscene wealth--a great mansion, a big pool, and an emerald necklace which--as the camera pans back out of the newsreel into the theater--catches the eye of Nathaniel (character actor Dan Duryea), a professional burglar. As he exits the theater, and lets his gravelly face tower above the camera, we're treated to the kind of jazzy opening credits sequence that was the hallmark of a lot of great noirs. If the opening reminds one of Orson Welles (the use of newsreel harkens back to Citizen Kane), so does The Burglar's punchy editing, overheated character acting, and inventive camera angles (one humorous shot depicts the discovery of the missing loot from the point of view of the open safe); even the climax pays homage to The Lady from Shanghai, although that might have been a rote requirement for the genre at this point. The plot is almost unusually untangled, barring one effective twist halfway through. Nat decides to steal the emerald necklace, so he enlists girlfriend Gladden (Jayne Mansfield, surprisingly good) to befriend the lonely woman and scope the joint out. She discovers where the safe is located--it's never explained how, thanks to an effective, forward-jumping cut which takes us from the Gladden the old woman perceived (down-on-her-luck, humble) to the Gladden Nat knows (a cynical, sultry thief). We're also introduced to his other partners: a nervous wreck intent on getting to Central America, and a thug who can't respect Gladden's personal space. During the robbery itself, the police discover the burglars' car parked near the mansion; Nat seemingly talks his way out of their suspicions, but after the robbery, this encounter gives the police a sketch artist's profile of the prime suspect. The tension builds as Nat tries to convince his partners to stay holed-up, to contact no one, and to hold onto the necklace for just a little while longer until the heat dies down--but meanwhile, he's forced to get Gladden out of the picture, which begins a chain reaction that leads to double-crosses and violence.
Like most noirs, The Burglar is downbeat and pessimistic, with a protagonist whose struggle to juggle oncoming crises ultimately leads to catastrophe and murder. Duryea is excellent at invoking the audience's sympathy while events spin out of his control; good enough, in fact, that the screenplay (by acclaimed noir writer David Goodis, adapting his own novel) should not have needed to laboriously explain his backstory, which involves being trained, as a child, by a professional burglar who steals to put food on the table, and whose death might be Nat's fault. (This flashback is literally fog-enshrouded, to the point of cliché, though for genre aficionados that's part of the fun.) Mansfield, who only has one scene in a swimsuit (and it's a yowza!), is impressively understated, serving this gloomy picture well, and off-setting the delirious presentations of her on-screen colleagues. It's a satisfying little picture, doing nothing extraordinary but everything just right. There's a brutality to the ending which noirs of the 40's couldn't have gotten away with--I'm thinking specifically of the number of gunshots seen and heard--and its leanness anticipates the best French noirs. One expects an excellent DVD release in the near future.