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Burglar, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Crook and director are both ambitious; the latter has better luck."
4 stars

The introduction to this screening of "The Burglar" talked about how director Paul Wendkos was not just a great fan of Orson Welles but clearly heavily influenced by him on this film, and it's not exactly hard to miss. It's also fairly clear that not everyone can pull off what Welles did, but the attempts should be encouraged, because aiming high can yield a fine movie even when it has a rough patch or two.

This one starts with newsreel footage slowing how a "spiritualist" calling herself "Sister Sara" (Phoebe Mackay) may not have received a large mansion, jewels, and furs as donations, technically, but that she paid just a few dollars to acquire them makes her not just a tempting target, but arguably a deserving one. So enter Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea), the sort of professional burglar who plans meticulously and never uses a weapon. He's the leader of a crew of four, including Baylock (Peter Capell) to sell the emerald pendant they're targeting, Dohmer (Mickey Shaughnessy) for muscle, and Gladden (Jayne Mansfield) to case the joint. A pair of traffic cops (Stewart Bradley & Sam Elber) put a crimp in their plans, forcing the gang to lay low.

That causes more problems, naturally - Baylock and Dohmer are naturally finding their gaze drawn to Gladden, who is only interested in Nat, who was taught the ropes by her father and therefore sees her more as a kid sister than anything else. The tone during these scenes can shift rather drastically - rather than a slow build in tension, Wendkos and writer David Goodis will suddenly have everybody crazed enough to be at each other's throats, and while the situation won't roll all the way back to calm, the changes in tension are a jagged enough line to work against the movie a bit, especially when it seems like actual violence affects them less than vague threats. There's also a fair amount of waste early on - Wendkos uses a fairly noteworthy gimmick to introduce Sister Sara, but that seems to fizzle, and the heist that must have Nat in and out in fifteen minutes is not particularly memorable. It's the sort of thing that needs to involve the whole team and make every second count, but doesn't.

For all the unevenness that Wendkos's ambition invites, it also makes things quite exciting when it scores. There's a genuine sense of panic to the scenes of these guys holed up in a too-small house, with Peter Capell especially great at making Baylock seem downright crazed. Compared to how other noirs often played similar scenes - speech getting even more clipped, the situation described more than felt - it comes off as especially visceral. Flashbacks are unusually well-utilized as well, with the visual accompaniment to Nat's explanation of how he and Gladden connect making it feel a bit more real. It also helps that they don't overdo exposition later; Nat's new girlfriend Della (Martha Vickers) doesn't need a lot of explanation even at the moment when most movies would give it, nor does Nat opting to trust Gladden. Wendkos and company do a great job of pulling everything together at the big turning point, and the film runs like a well-oiled machine from that point forward.

Dan Duryea is one of that machine's most important parts, and his being a perfect fit may or may not be surprising: He's a familiar face from any number of gangster roles, so it's a bit odd to see him in the lead, but the same ruggedness and sort of resting sneer on his face works just as well for a career criminal; it implies he forgoes a weapon as much out of practicality (a shorter sentence if convicted) rather than being philosophically against them. He's still got enough range to make the way Nat treats Gladden feel like something with a full history between them rather than just rules clean enough to move the plot, and also hints at a normal life with Della seem possible. Martha Vickers is nice in that role, too, making her well-rounded enough to be a second-half wild card, even if one's first impression is that she's the same sort of pretty blonde as Gladden, and isn't that interesting?

Not that there is necessarily any sort of exact equivalent to Jayne Mansfield. The Burglar is one from the start of the buxom blonde's career - the studio actually delayed its release to take advantage of her rising star - and while it's easy to see why she would quickly become a sex symbol, she's not just there to look pretty. It's actually kind of nifty when she shifts from the sweet waif who charms her way into the manor to the tough-talking gal who has cased the place, and the latter scenes where she is straddling the line between coming into her own in Atlantic City and still being a naive girl are quite nicely done.

Indeed, the whole film is quite good in the second half, and is not exactly weak to start with. It just needs a little time to figure out what its strengths are, and the experimentation along the way is at least always interesting.

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originally posted: 12/05/15 16:50:58
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User Comments

7/21/10 Josie Cotton is a goddess Sometimes funny, mostly crap 2 stars
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