A couple of years ago I ducked into Film Forum for a showing of The Burglar, a 1957 feature that was the fiction debut of director Paul Wendkos and the only time David Goodis adapted one of his novels for the big screen. My expectations were neither high nor low. I was just keen to see something involving Goodis which was relatively obscure. The more invested in film noir that I’ve become the more I’ve grown to appreciate Goodis’ contribution and inspiration. If there’s any single entity who best captured the mood of film noir in his words, and I’m adamant that mood is the most importantly pervasive element of noir, it was probably David Goodis. He perfected existential malaise on the page. He made his stories drip with hard depression and deep, stubborn hopelessness. There’s a reason, clearly, that Goodis has inspired about as many screenplay adaptations of his work as novels he produced.
Production of The Burglar would have come at an interesting time for Goodis. He’d already settled back in his native Philadelphia (at his parents’ house) after a stint in Hollywood which saw Delmer Daves adapt Dark Passage for Warner Bros. and Goodis write a version of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter (filmed twice already, with Jeanne Eagels and Bette Davis) for the same studio called The Unfaithful. His novel of The Burglar was published in 1953, and it took two more years for Paul Wendkos, a fellow Philadelphian and friend of Goodis, to make the film version as an independent production starring Dan Duryea. Columbia would buy the distribution rights but sit on the picture another couple of years, until cast member Jayne Mansfield developed into a movie star at Fox. Another Goodis adaptation, Nightfall directed by Jacques Tourneur, also came out from Columbia in 1957.
Both pictures retain Goodis’ downbeat voice, but they aren’t entirely similar. For one, they seem to have distinctively different intentions. Nightfall makes strong use of the typical male Tourneur protagonist – laconic, pursued, struggling with the past. Aldo Ray in that film seems cast against type yet generally effective. That said, he shows only situational angst rather than something habitual and tortured. By contrast, Duryea in The Burglar is weathered. He’s supposed to be just 35 years old but the actor was actually about 48 during filming, as evidenced by his watery eyes and each of the lines on his face. The extra years add nuance to what is, like many Goodis stories, a character study rather than simply a plot-driven tale of cops and robbers. Duryea’s Nat is a guy we learn about in a slow, patient fashion. The ties come together with ease, bound not by narrative obligation but through gradual moments of observation.
Though Duryea is sometimes thought of first for his less sympathetic roles, in things like Scarlet Street, Criss Cross, and Winchester ’73, among many others, he was quite capable of playing the other side too. Black Angel, for example, finds him as a guy who’s neither obviously good nor bad. The beauty of his performance in The Burglar lies in the unexpected restraint Duryea shows. There are ample silences, and gone is the usual jumpiness or friction. Nat is a tortured soul in the Goodis mold who’s sacrificed his life seemingly for two things, both of which involve the man who more or less raised him. That man was a thief who taught Nat how to steal professionally and only asked in return that he look out for his daughter Gladden (Mansfield) if anything ever happened to him. The complications here are mighty. For one, Gladden is, though not outwardly as bombshell sexy as her portrayer might imply, a young, attractive blonde who’s always looked up to Nat. Beyond that, the pair work in a group of four, one of which is a brutish, sweaty man who is constantly throwing unwanted stares at Gladden.
Their current haul is an expensive emerald necklace which the fourth member of the group estimates to be worth $150,000 or so, with a fence perhaps giving them $85,000 for it. It was taken from the Philadelphia home of a spiritualist. The tense heist is shown by Wendkos in sweaty detail, with Nat having to work on a safe in two parts after a couple of cops stop to check out his parked car on the street and he temporarily abandons the job to feed them a story about it having broken down. It’s a testament to the film’s brash confidence that Wendkos stages this essential set piece so early in the picture. This also lets us know that The Burglar is less concerned with crime in general than those individuals perpetrating it here.
Shot on location in both Philadelphia and Atlantic City, the movie earns its mood honestly. The choices Wendkos makes are frequently daring and most often succeed at establishing a dingy, rundown atmosphere. These characters are holed up in sweaty little apartments and shacks. They struggle. Nat broods. Nothing ever seems to be as close to paying off as they try to fool themselves. It’s easy to get behind Nat but it’s unfortunately just as natural to expect an outcome which will be destructive in some way. The noir elements, particularly the more mature and developed themes found in the best efforts from the fifties, are on full display. Interesting compositions marked by an affinity for shadows and inky darkness would seem to have announced Wendkos as a major filmmaker. Indeed, in a time period when noir was coming to a close and far too many crime dramas were settling for an unimaginative television aesthetic, The Burglar is a beautiful alternative. It looks and feels deeply, darkly unsettling. The final sequence through AC’s Steel Pier amusement park is as enormously thrilling to watch as it is painful to digest.
The postscript for The Burglar, if there was any justice, should be a positive one. Alas, Goodis kept descending into whatever fugue state he was destined for, despite a brief renewed interest after François Truffaut adapted a book by the author for his second film, and died far too young at the age of 49 in early 1967. Wendkos had a weird career. He directed Gidget and a pair of sequels soon after making The Burglar, and then later worked steadily in television. Without having seen every movie and episode of television Wendkos did, it seems unfair to just provide a flat dismissal but I do think one would have difficulty in painting his career as living up to the promise shown by this picture, considering how terrific it is. While Mansfield’s Broadway success with Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? immediately followed filming, and that then segued into her screen career, the delay in releasing The Burglar probably did it few favors. Having Mansfield’s sexy image as the focal point of the poster campaign seems both misleading and certain to disappoint filmgoers looking for a bubbly blonde rather than the troubled, more even character seen here.
The film’s reputation, for whatever reason, has never really matched its potential impact. This is one of the darker, more downbeat and adult noirs made in the mid-fifties, and I’m inclined to say it’s also one of the best. Back on that first viewing, aided by a memorably bold opening, The Burglar knocked me out and left me wondering why more people didn’t speak or write of it highly. It’s now, sort of, available on DVD, in limited release from the TCM online store and Movies Unlimited as part of the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III set. This might be too minor of a release to really impact general opinion, I’m afraid, or maybe the picture is mostly just for those already in the cult of Goodis. But at least it’s actually available through official channels (and not stricken with a purple underbelly). It’s a soothing development, particularly if you already love the film.