The Burglar is instantly established with a pleasing visual geography. In fact, this kind of pervasively engaging visual landscape is constantly being reinforced, and in his first feature, director Paul Wendkos shows off his perceptive eye. Though he was a workhorse in television, it does lead one to wonder how an industry can so easily canonize certain names and so easily forget others.
But let me take a moment to laud the talents of Dan Duryea. He is such a fantastic bulwark to build a film around. He’s never one to garner prestigious fare, but all the pictures he was allowed to anchor have a certain predetermined grittiness to them that makes them feel inherently watchable. By now he’s older and not as sturdy as he used to be. But that face and his demeanor are still very much the same.
Jayne Mansfield had yet to reach meteoric stardom when the film was first made, although it was re-released a couple years later to make a profit off her newfound celebrity. What a stark and thrilling contrast it is to her usual bombshell image in the likes of A Girl Can’t Help It and Rock Hunter. It feels reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock or maybe Niagara.
When glam girls are allowed to be something more than just a pretty face, it can be remarkable because we see them less and less as objects and more like human beings. Their emotions touch us, and they feel real with problems and issues in drab black and white as opposed to luscious shades of Technicolor.
The Burglar is conceived in such a depressing world. It opens with a Newsreel about Sister Sarah a pseudo-religious figure who lives lavishly thanks to the goodwill of some of her faithful benefactors. This subject in itself feels worthy of more dissection, but it’s really only an opener.
We realize of course this is all pertinent exposition. Nat Harbin (Duryea) and his cronies plan to get within the iron gates of her mansion and run off with as much as they can. However, they know they only have 15 minutes to pull the job while Sister Sarah watches her favorite news broadcast. That’s not much time barring any further complications…
It’s such a sweltering opening full of tension and real dramatic heat. Surely, the movie cannot maintain this kind of fervid criminal activity for the rest of the movie. Of course, it can’t and part of this is the function of the story.
They get the loot but now they must wait it out — we watch their nerves and relationships unravel around them — as the authorities begin their search. Except it feels less and less like your typical police procedural. It has more going for it — partially thanks to David Goodis’s script.
The pieces don’t all fit together seamlessly. They sort of bump up against one another and slide into place. It’s not always taut, cogent, or particularly pithy, but there’s an inbred existentialism and weariness dancing around the corners; it’s difficult to shake.
This melds quite well with the grungy, sweaty cinematography that feels suitable for the burgeoning TV market. At one time it can be both claustrophobic and artful in its construction of mise en scene. It’s the antithesis of decadence, but that doesn’t mean the frame isn’t packed with intriguing visual landscapes.
Martha Vickers also gets her second noteworthy femme fatale role a decade after The Big Sleep — too bad she couldn’t be bequeathed more of them. She had a knack, and it’s no different in The Burglar, although she doesn’t show up until well into the movie.
Simultaneously, the manhunt continues and Nat finds himself being tailed by a shadowy stalker who seems to have a far more private interest in what they are doing. If neither one of these threats comes to fruition, then the gang will probably end up imploding out of mutual distaste. Though they work together out of necessity, they also come to loathe each other’s guts, especially in such close proximity under constant duress.
Duryea is protective of Mansfield, but it’s more of an obligation than affection. He’s made a vow now buried in their past somewhere. He sends her off to Atlantic City for her own safety, but as the movie bowls over, he has no recourse to follow her there, regardless of the danger he brings in his wake.
Coney Island-like atmosphere provides a wonderful visual contradiction to play off the criminal elements that hold the impending tinge of noir-filled doom. It uses the shrieks and ghoulish attractions of a carnival show like many of its great noir predecessors — Brighton Rock, Lady of Shanghai, Woman on the Run, and Stranger on The Train all spring to mind. It certainly deserves at least a mention in this company.
Duryea and Mansfield make full use of the place going from the boardwalk to a house of horrors to a water show, and as the benches clear out and they’re left alone in the cavernous space, it signs the end of the story with one fatalistic final act. Of course, it feels like a foregone conclusion. These pictures rarely end another way. The inevitable catches up with them.
But what I will remember indelibly are some of the individual shots. The Burglar has some of the most epic perspective shots I can recall in recent memory. They punctuate the film like many of the close-ups, and we are left with something so resolutely impactful. It feels like a flawed diamond in the rough. It’s the kind of unwonted gem you won’t soon forget even as the blemishes slowly fade away.