Dan Duryea had quite a career in film and television, racking up over 100 different roles. He never became a huge star, instead becoming one of the best character actors to ever grace the screens in Hollywood. Like most character actors, he did get a crack or two at his own movies, one he could carry himself, and he doesn't disappoint in 1957's The Burglar.
Having grown up as a thief, always improving his skills and ability, Nat Harbin (Duryea) doesn't have many equals. He's a small-time thief though, never gaining much in the way of notoriety over the years. He pulls jobs that net him enough money to get him to the next job while also caring for his step sister, Gladden (Jayne Mansfield), who helps him and two other thieves. With his most recent job, Nat steals a necklace worth $150,000 but much to the dismay of his team, he sits on, waiting for the heat to cool down and the cops to back off. With each passing day though, the heat intensifies, and his two partners get more and more anxious. When Nat senses the cops are closing in, he sends Gladden to Atlantic City to hide out only to find out that a crooked cop (Stewart Bradley) is following her. Now it becomes a race against time to see who can get to her first.
I came away impressed with a lot of things from this Paul Wendkos-directed film noir. It is based on a novel by David Goodis (who also wrote the script), and it is the better for it. The best thing going here is Duryea as the anti-hero thief, a thief with a code of honor. It is the type of character that would pop up more and more in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. He's a criminal, a thief, no doubt about it, but he does operate by a code of sorts. No guns, no betrayals (if possible) and no messing around, just get the job done. His background is explained, showing how he ends up caring for Gladden, how he came to be the man he is. It is a quiet, perfectly understated part that gives Duryea a chance to shake off his bad guy typecasting. With a bit of that doom cloud hanging over his head, it is apparent things may not end well for him, but maybe, just maybe, there's a chance for him to get out clean.
Using Duryea's starring performance as a jumping off point, 'Burglar' manages to rise above the good but not great film noir list with some impressive style decisions. Yes, it is filmed in black and white, bringing to life the shadows and dim lights that populate the criminal underworld, but it's more than that. Wendkos takes what we know of the noir genre and makes it more of an arthouse film, an almost existential film. It is a lonely, isolated world, and Wendkos brings it to life with some startling jump cuts, some odd, off-center camera angles and a solid, appropriately jazzy, unsettling score from composer Sol Kaplan. The pacing can be a tad slow early on with some long, dull monologues, but once things get rolling, it doesn't really slow down, right up until the surprising finale.
While Duryea's performance is noteworthy, I think at least part of this movie's relatively unknown status is because the rest of the cast lacks any name recognition. Building up her sex kitten status, Mansfield shows she doesn't have a ton of acting range, but she's solid. Her looks are dulled down for the first half -- baggy clothes and all -- and then at the halfway point....ta-da! Bathing suit! Martha Vickers plays Della, a middle-aged woman with a checkered past, looking for something new in her life...and maybe with an ace up her sleeves. As the sinister, hovering villain, Bradley is a good counter, a bad guy with greed as his only real motivation and nothing else. Working with Nat as his partners on jobs are Peter Capell as Baylock, an older crook looking to retire and Mickey Shaughnessy as Dohmer, a brutish thug who is always worrying.
Shaking off the somewhat slow start, 'Burglar' picks up the pace when Nat realizes the crooked cop is on their trail. The ending is almost inevitable in its execution, but that doesn't take away from that tension-packed build-up. Nat and Co. head to Atlantic City to find Gladden, but when they run into a motorcycle officer that recognizes them, the plan takes a wicked plan. 'Burglar' films its finale on location in Atlantic City -- a time capsule to the late 1950s -- and it becomes a race against time as Nat, Gladden, cops (crooked and legit) all converge on the Steel Pier. It really finds its noir roots in the finale, a downbeat ending that nonetheless works extremely well. Highly recommended, shaking off a sluggish start. Watch the movie HERE at Youtube.
The Burglar (1957): ***/****