The Burglar (1957): The last b-movie?

The Burglar (1957)

One of the few films where David Goodis adapted his own novel for the screen, The Burglar is a brooding story where decency is a ‘dark passage’ to destruction.

A flashback provides the back story of an abandoned boy brought up by a kindly thief who adopts him, and apprentices him to the ‘trade’.  The adoptive father is killed in an abortive heist when the boy’s first mistake on the job triggers an alarm. The dead man has previously extracted from the boy the promise that if something happens to the father, he will look after his young daughter. The story pivots on this obligation and the complications that ensue when the burglar the boy has grown up to be steals a valuable necklace – aided by the girl and a motley crew of accomplices.

Dan Duryea is the thief and Jayne Mansfield is the child-woman under his wing, who is otherwise employed in the kitchen or casing heists. Duryea delivers in a role where what is not expressed is where the action is. The limitations of Mansfield in an early role render her believable as a simple girl struggling to make sense of the life she has fallen into, and her ambivalent relationship with Duryea, who is tormented by his warring paternal obligations and the underlying attraction they have for each other.  In the noir universe such dilemmas are always resolved at a cost.

A crooked cop is involved in that denouement, which is telegraphed after an interlude where Duryea hooks up with a women in a bar, played at first as a tough dame but then with real pathos by Martha Vickers.  There is a rare for noir tenderness in the scenes that follow when these two damaged souls open up to each other. This night of refuge is followed by a brutal betrayal the next day, and here a jarring plot hole almost pushes the scenario off-course, but it quickly swerves back onto the road to nowhere.

The film’s budget was only US$90,000 and perhaps was one of the last b-movies delivered of the signature gritty realism of Columbia Pictures.  But the picture has a patina that belies it’s budget, with truly accomplished cinematography from DP Don Malkames, and taut editing and elegant direction from first-time director Paul Wendkos. All carrying a stunning wide-screen realist austerity from a deep focus on-the-streets ambience.

A worthy valedictory to the b-movie.


4 thoughts on “The Burglar (1957): The last b-movie?”

  1. “Duryea delivers in a role where what is not expressed is where the action is.”

    And this is what would surely elevate this intriguing noir, which I know is available on the Film Noir Classics III collection. I have not seen it to this point, but am taken with your warming B classification and the beautiful writing (seriously!!) that you have economically employed to do this film full justice. The idea of ‘decency’ as a dark passage to destruction is certainly in the noir wheelhouse, though it the context of this film it is seemingly unique. I like the use of the flashback too and will take note when I do get to the film. I also am taking note of the unusual “noir tenderness” present in the film’s relationship and of the reliable work of Martha Vickers. I have also heard about Mansfield’s work in this film, which some have apparently regarded as among her best performances.

    I was also quite interested in reading this assessment:

    “This low-budget film is now appreciated for being one of those extravagantly stylized late-period noirs, one which palpitates with flamboyant cinematic technique, thanks to the ability of Paul Wendkos (in his directing debut) to create many stunning edits (he is also credited as the film’s editor), several strikingly composed shots, and a suitably seedy background under a clear Orson Welles reminiscence. However, the film remains somewhat unknown and mostly unavailable.”

    Anyway, kudos on this exceptional, superbly-written review Tony!


  2. I’m watching it as I write. Enjoying it thoroughly so far. It’s airing on the Movies! network over the air on their Sunday Noir series.
    I missed the very beginning – I’ll be sure to catch it all when they re-air it.
    Gotta go, Jayne’s on screen!


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