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The Forgotten: Paul Wendkos' "The Burglar" (1957)

A career criminal falls afould of a crooked cop in pulp noir "The Burglar".
TV stalwart Paul Wendkos' biggest success in movies was as the director of the Gidget series. I'm Scottish so I don't know what that was. But it turns out he had a real gift for expressionistic noir, as demonstrated in his debut film The Burglar, which was scripted by pulp noir icon David Goodis, whose novels provided source material for Delmer Daves' Dark Passage, Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall, Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, René Clément's And Hope to Die, Beineix's Moon in the Gutter (the author was big in France) and Sam Fuller's Street of No Return.
The movie, a low-budget affair, substitutes flair and vigor for production values, and stars lifelong noir patsy/creep Dan Duryea and up-and-coming sex bomb Jayne Mansfield, with the result that it always seems to be in the wrong aspect ratio. Duryea's cranium seems to have an extra story built on it: his forehead is an eighthead. Whereas Mansfield's torso defies sense, with a pinky-thin waist and a bosom like an isosceles triangle.
Despite these visual distractions, or because of them, the film is consistently stimulating, with angular compositions that make your eyes dance. Goodis' plot wrings suspense from a chunky series of narrative set-ups, beginning with a heist, then a thieves-fall-out waiting sequence, and eventually a twisted conflict between Duryea's titular housebreaker and a very crooked cop.
Goodis protagonists are typically perennial losers, so the hangdog Duryea is superb casting. He looks like a William H. Macey who's strayed too close to a black hole and has been sucked all out of shape by the gravitational pull. Flashbacks, even more expressionistic and chiaroscuro than the rest of the movie, give this low-life hustler a sympathetic backstory and motivation: he's looking after Mansfield's character, the improbably-named Gladden, a foundling who's now blossoming into womanhood, which D.D. has somehow failed to notice.
Mansfield, cast against type as a human being, is OK, her bizarreness tamped down, but has competition from Martha Vickers, who was memorable as Bacall's delinquent sister in The Big Sleep, but whose career was now winding down. She delivers a monologue very flatly, but comes alive in glances and seems the realest character in a very unreal movie.
Part of the heightened stylization comes from the way Goodis' dialogue sits so awkwardly on the actors' lips. He attempts a straightforward, slangy, hardboiled style, but most of the cast handle it uncertainly, imparting a formal quality that's very strange. It's like hearing opera sings attempt rock 'n' roll. That kind of careful enunciation just doesn't suit the casual grammar. With the punchy compositions and pulpy tone, the result is very comic book, which I don't mean as a knock.
Triangulating the loot.
Two-fisted noir minimalism extends to the flashback, whose scenes take place more or less in a black void, and to the staging of action, including a subjective camera punch to the lens. Relief from the close-quarters claustrophobia and neurotic sweat is provided by Mansfield's beach idyll, which looks forward to the seaside panoramas of Wendkos' Gidget series (OK, I looked it up: Sandra Dee surfing romcom. Satisfied?) But with more than a little sex in it.
Both pulp novels and B-movies were planned as product, designed to be churned out, but the creators would sometimes put their heart and soul into the outcome, or anyhow their talent. As Tom Gunning said of Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour, "There is nothing but genius in that film, because there is no budget for anything else." As an exercise in constrained creativity, The Burglar excels: not so much thinking outside the box, but thinking within cramped, badly-constructed boxes with poor ventilation.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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