Monday, April 23, 2007

The Burglar (1957)

Director: Paul Wendkos

On its surface, The Burglar has two outstanding points going for it which would make it a film to be rabidly sought out by connoisseurs of film noir. First, it stars that reliable mainstay of the film noir world, Dan Duryea. Second, and most important to me, it is based on what many consider to be the finest novel from David Goodis. As an added bonus, David Goodis is the screenwriter on the film.

However, the film remains somewhat unknown and mostly unavailable. The reason for this isn’t a mystery the size of which Sam Spade himself would need to investigate. Quite simply, the film fails to produce to expectations on a few levels. The fact that it took two years between when the film was finished and it’s theatrical release, suggest that I might not be the only one who feels this way.

The Burglar
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Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea) is the leader of a small-time burglary ring out to make the big score. Included in this gang are jewelry and fence expert Baylock (Peter Capell), muscle Dohmer (Mickey Shaughnessy), and casing expert Gladden (Jayne Mansfield). We learn later, through flashback that as a young orphan Nat was taken under the wing of Gladden’s father and taught the trade of burglary. In return Nat had vowed to always care for Gladden.

Reminiscent of Citizen Kane, The Burglar opens with a series of newsreels in which we learn of a Philadelphia evangelist who has inherited a fortune, including a necklace valued at $150,000. Priming for their first truly big score, Nat has Gladden case the mansion of the evangelist and develops a plan that allots them 15 minutes to complete the robbery of the necklace.

In the most effective set piece of the film, Nat leads his gang to the mansion to complete the burglary. Filmed near real-time for the full 15 minutes, the key suspense is supplied when a police patrol car shows up to investigate the gang’s car parked near the mansion. Nat climbs down from his second story job to convince the police that it’s a simple case of his car breaking down before scurrying back to complete the job. Although it fails to provide the same heightened level of tension as Rififi or The Asphalt Jungle, it’s still reasonably well done.

While the gang waits for the heat to cool down, their own tension heats up, first as Dohmer makes advances towards Gladden, then as an impatient Baylock blames her for the delay in fencing the loot. For her own safety, Nat sends Gladden out on her own to Atlantic City until the fence can be made. At this point, it’s obvious that Gladden has unreciprocated amorous feelings towards Nat.

Feeling the burden and conflict of his oath to his mentor to always protect and look after Gladden, Nat falls into the web of a mysterious woman - Della (the always beautiful Martha Vickers) and considers giving up his criminal life.

Things are looking up for Nat when he stumbles upon Della in secret conversation with a young man that he recognizes as one of the police who had questioned him about his car on the night of the robbery. Nat eventually comes to realize that the cop, Charlie (Stewart Bradley) is a bad egg who intends to gain the necklace for himself and is in collusion with Della. Della’s job is to work on Nat while Charlie has tracked down Gladden in Atlantic City and is pitching woo to her.

Nat gathers Dohmer and Baylock together and set out for Atlantic City to warn Gladden. Matters become complicated along the way when a shootout leaves Dohmer and one of the police officers dead, setting off a manhunt that starts closing in on Nat and Baylock.

Upon getting to Atlantic City, Nat eventually convinces Gladden that Charlie is a crooked cop out for his own gain and attempt to make a break for it as Charlie, who has now killed Baylock, closes in. In a series of scenes reminiscent of The Lady From Shanghai, Nat and Gladden flee through the boardwalk area of A.C. replete with funhouse before Charlie catches up to them at the diving tank stadium.

Once the rest of the crowd has left, Nat offers to trade the necklace for an insurance of Gladden’s safety. After Gladden has safely left the arena, Nat hands over the necklace before making a break for it, only to be shot and killed by Charlie. Charlie in turn runs straight into the hands of the waiting police, doomed by the combination of the necklace in his pocket and the accusations from Gladden on his guilt.



For myself, the key to any good film lies in a good story, good direction and good acting. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

The one that drew me to this film primarily was the promise of a GREAT story on the basis of having read the novel of the same name by David Goodis. Of all of the noir/pulp writers of the 30’s and 40’s, Goodis was perhaps most adept at creating the darkest and most innerly troubled characters. The things that drive these characters, their hurts and their pains, which are very easily relayed through the medium of the printed word, become much more difficult to convey on film. One of the most intriguing aspects of the story is that although Goodis is the screenplay writer of credit, tasked with adapting his own story, there are several somewhat key plot and storyline changes from his novel which, in my opinion, severely undercut the power of the novel. Least favourable amongst these changes is the altering of the incredibly powerful ending to be found in the book.

On the directorial side, Paul Wendkos was making his debut with The Burglar and seems to bring all the enthusiasm that can be mustered. Wendkos is also credited as editor of the film and stylistically speaking, The Burglar is fairly adept at meeting the noir conventions. The trouble is that, coming as it does near the end of the classic age of noir, almost everything that we see here comes across somewhat as overused and overtired. By example, you’ll notice that I’ve mentioned the opening shots are very reminiscent of Citizen Kane while some of the closing flirt closely with The Lady from Shanghai. While impressive, many of the intervening shots are likewise stylistically good, but still shadows of things we’ve all seen many times before. Ironically, the director that Wendkos most emulates here (Welles) would go on to show a few short years later in Touch of Evil, that the genre hadn’t quite been stylistically beaten to death yet.

Wendkos himself had a rather limited career as a motion picture director outside of this film, the horrible Gidget series and the even worse sequel to a classic, Guns of the Magnificent Seven. He was, however, rather prolific as a TV director and I recognize several of his episode credits as ones that I particularly enjoyed.

What I thought would be the weakest aspect of the film, acting, turned out to be one of it’s high points. While Dan Duryea is a noir treasure, I couldn’t help thinking as I fired up the DVD player that he seemed wholly unsuited to the character as written by Goodis as, despite being a low-life crook, Nat’s character is written in a manner to elicit maximum sympathy. Duryea on the other hand, is most often associated as the weasel type, certainly not someone who brings about pangs of motherly feelings. However, for the most part, here Duryea does an admirable job of evoking the inner turmoil being faced by Nat (particularly surprising since Goodis seems to have removed some of the storyline that brings such turmoil to Nat in the screenplay).

Likewise, most of the supporting cast, many of them early in their film career, do a fine job. However, the surprising standout of the cast is Jayne Mansfield. At first glance, Mansfield is totally unsuited for the role of Gladden who is described in the novel as a waifish woman-child. One word most people would not use to describe Mansfield as is waifish. However, Jayne overcomes this by underplaying the role wonderfully and adequately conveying the sense of helplessness (without Nat) and confusion that Gladden has in the novel, rather than the Monroe-esque sex kitten she was becoming by the time the film was released.

I opened with the declaration that this film fails to deliver to expectations on several levels. While certainly not a terrible film, I believe it is guaranteed to disappoint anyone who has prepped themselves with Goodis’ source novel. Still, for the noir aficionado, and even casual fan, it’s may be worth the watching. Just don’t expect a noir masterpiece.

The Burglar Trivia:
  • The Burglar was filmed during the summer of 1955, but not released until the summer of 1957, primarily to cash in on the growing popularity of Jayne Mansfield. Indeed, most of the film posters feature the very buxom Mansfield front and center, presented in a style quite un-noirish.
  • To assist in getting Columbia head Harry Cohn to release the picture, producer Louis Kellman had to make director Paul Wendkos part of the deal.
  • The Burglar was remade in 1971 in a French/Italian co-production under the title Le Casse. By all accounts that I can find, it’s an even worse interpretation of Goodis’ novel.

No current DVD or VHS release, although collector copies are available. Editor's note: This movie has been released on DVD as part of the TCM/Columbia Film Noir Classics III DVD set


Written by Samspadefan


  1. Great site,,,,,where would one found a collector copy...??

  2. My father (William G. Wilson) worked on this film as a cinematographer and also had a bit part. He plays the TV news director in the film who gives John Facenda the cue to go on the air. My father worked for the producing studio (Louis W. Kellman Productions) in Philadelphia for nearly 20 years and went on to film professional sports for 50 years. Although he worked on second unit crews for a few other features, The Burglar was his favorite. He got to be friends with Mickey Shaughnessy who plays the heavy.

  3. As my brother points out my dad did some exterior shots and other works as well as play the director. The TV news sequence was key to the plot as I understand because the woman watched TV news every night. And in the 1950s late night local TV was very new. John Facenda was also know as 'The Voice" and is well know for NFL Films (my Dad worked there,too)narrations.
    Another fact/trivia the boardwalk fun house and the diving tank are part of the famous Steel Pier. The diving tank was used for horses that actually dove, well actually fell into the tank with a rider.

  4. I worked on the set doing the carpenter work etc.It was made at wcau. One sceen was taken in my uncles bar and my uncle Ed is sitting at the bar in the shot. got to meet the actors and knew John Facenda very well..Name of uncles bar was the cynwyd cocktail lounge. It was on city line ave in Cynwyd Pa.

  5. My grandmother Herta Horn was the editor of this film. Even though she never did another Hollywood film, she did end up working for a major motor vehicle company in Detroit MI, editing their films. She studied filming, editing and motion picture in Germany, at the same time, the 1936 Summer Olympics were taking place and she, alongside my grandfather did some filming and editing of this event as part of their schooling. She came to this country with her husband and two children in the early 1950's to start a new life. That's when she landed the job as editor of this film. I just wish she had more recognition for being the editor of this movie..