The Burglar May 9, 2017
I’d like to think that 1957’s The Burglar is something of an earthly rendition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (1944). An existentialist play which made Sartre’s oft quoted sentiment that “hell is other people” famous, the piece, stationed in the merciless afterlife, circles around a trio of sinners paying the price of their wrongdoings for an eternity. Their punishment? Having to endure each other’s company in a single, cramped room. Forever. It only takes pages for all involved to have been driven completely mad.
Flashes of No Exit come to mind when viewing The Burglar. Directed by Paul Wendkos and written by David Goodis, who also wrote the 1953 novel which acts as the film’s basis, it is a nihilistic crime thriller (specifically sitting under the film noir umbrella of the 1940s and ‘50s) so miserable and so naturalistically despairing it sometimes resembles a masterpiece simply because it doesn’t much resemble other films of its kind.
In contrast to the majority of noir features, The Burglar never romanticizes criminality and never trivializes the truth that crime doesn’t pay. It merely watches as cheap, down-and-out low-lifes spiral down after their latest endeavor proves to be a regrettable one. There’s nothing more to it than that. But the abbreviated pessimism, along with the overreaching artistry by Wendkos, are becoming surprises. Who knew an economic thrill starring an aging character actor and a Marilyn knockoff could contain such genre mastery?
In The Burglar, Dan Duryea portrays Nat Harbin, a thief and criminal leader who, as the film opens, has set his sights on burglarizing the home of Sister Sarah (Phoebe McKay), a lucrative, obviously fake spiritualist who has recently inherited a sizable fortune from a financier. Especially of interest is the gargantuan emerald necklace which comes along with the cash.
His conglomerate of thugs (Peter Capell, Mickey Shaughnessy, and Jayne Mansfield) backing his every move, the blueprint is foolproof and the execution is proficient, even if it does hit a snag when it’s abundantly clear that the police are in the area for a different reason.
But shortly after this gaggle of anti-heroes returns to their makeshift home, things start to unravel. Not just because their personalities clash and are inflamed by the added stresses of their possessions. But also because, in lieu of their being so distracted by their egos and their greed, their every move is being tracked.
No happy endings are in store. But like a John Cassavetes weeper, The Burglar is a great feel-bad movie, a character study comprised of guilt, dejection, avarice, sweat. We’re riveted by its characters because the film so earnestly emphasizes that their trip down to the bottom has been cooking for years. Where we see them now are in places of total desperation, and the way they handle their neuroses is undeniably arresting. The movie is exceptionally strong during the last act, wherein everyone has realized that they’ve dug themselves into their own graves and that there is no longer such thing as an easy way out.
Perfectly cast, the movie’s actors suit the material wonderfully. Mansfield is an unexpected scene-stealer, her sexuality suddenly a prison and not an asset she exploits herself. But most provocative about The Burglar is Wendkos’ attention to composition. Every frame looks like something of a ghoulish nightmare, the black and white cinematography not so much feeling like a passive, of the time photographic standard but a highlighter that the world in which these characters are living really is devoid of color.
The Burglar is a standout in the noir genre, but time, and I suppose the reality that the grimness is almost so underplayed that the film sometimes seems ready to be whisked away, has been unforgiving. It’s perhaps the definition of a hidden gem, a diamond in the rough. One doesn’t have to look to hard to find it – an internet search leads the way to a plethora of high definition streams. B+