Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Burglar (1957)

Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea) has a sensible thing going on with his tiny “organization” of crooks. But when they rob jewellery from a spiritualist, the potential riches open all the little rifts between members of the group up into abysses. In today’s parlance, Nat himself suffers under a form of PTSD, presented by the film in an excellent dream-memory sequence about his time in an orphanage, and how he escaped and was taken in by a very kind man, who also happened to be a professional burglar. He taught Nat all he knew about the business, and made the boy swear to watch out for his little daughter Gladden.

Since their dad is dead, Nat has been trying to be a replacement father to her (now grown up to be played by Jayne Mansfield), while using her to scoop out their targets. The problem is that Gladden doesn’t really see Nat as father or big brother anymore but has developed a pretty obsessive degree of lust for him; something he doesn’t at all reciprocate. Now that times are changing on them, and certainly not helped by the rest of the crew having crap of their own going on – one’s rapey and the other one is apparently born to run decades before Bruce Springsteen – their relationship will come to a decision point too.

As if that weren’t bad enough, someone else is rather interested in stealing the jewellery from the thieves.

Paul Wendkos’s The Burglar is a nice little heist movie of the sort more interested in the aftermath of the heist than the actual stealing of stuff, sharing some of the world view and some of the style of the noir, using the mandatory end for criminals in a 50s movie to express existentialist desperation. Despite the rules of the game, the film treats its broken characters – particularly Nat and Gladden – with exceptional compassion, suggesting their lives have been doomed from the start through the places they were born into in society. The film’s clearly not happy about this. Now, more crime movies of the time did this sort of thing than one would expect given the strictures of the production code, but there aren’t many films who’d have a policeman when asked how to label Nat’s corpse, simply state “victim”.

Of course, the script to The Burglar was written by great, at his own time pretty unsung, hero of noir crime writing David Goodis, so I probably should have expected the mix of compassion and ruthlessness carried by what to me always reads as a great sadness.

As a director, Wendkos – whose debut feature this was and who would go on to a long and storied career in movies and TV of the kind that suggests a journeyman who still treated his work with thought and respect  – intelligently goes from the classic noir style of scenes like Nat’s dream and the climax to the brightly lit, more direct sort of staging you’d find in a Phil Karlsson film of the era, depending on the mood of any given scene. The director also puts a lot of energy into giving his performers centre stage whenever the script demands it, not so much getting out of their way than enabling them – quite an achievement for a debut movie like this.

Speaking of the acting, a lot of it is in that very particular 50s early method style that to me always feels halfway between the stylized acting approach of the 40s (which is another kind of stylization than used in the 30s, but I digress) and the more organic acting styles of the 60s and 70s. For today’s taste, where actors not visibly emoting is often treated as the state of the art (comparable to the contemporary love of particularly bland writing styles in novels, if you ask me, but I’m clearly old), the performances might seem a bit stagey, a bit too earnestly big, but once you’ve gotten in the groove of this sort of thing, they actually make sense, presenting much more nuance than a viewer might at first realize.

Duryea was always great in the kind of role where he could show the fissures in the soul of the man’s man of the time, so the quality of his performance isn’t surprising, but there’s still a certain fearlessness from an actor doing this in an era when fragility just wasn’t what men showed (or were allowed to show).

Young Jayne Mansfield (before her short period of stardom) is good too, providing Gladden with the neediness of a young woman who never had much to begin with, and never had the opportunity to actually finish growing up, and now hangs on to the little she has with everything she’s got. The rest of the cast is great, too, with Martha Vickers giving nuance to what could have been an underwritten one-note character, and a handful of character actors really digging into the meat of the script.

The Burglar is a wonderful film all around, at once very typical of films of its time and daring to go a little further when nobody’s looking.

No comments: