Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Two Shadowy Burglars

Above are two noir-ish movies about burglars made within four years of one another that are nevertheless characterized by some striking differences that make each well worth watching. One was made by a very experienced, well-known B-movie director in the latter half of his long career and is among his best work. The other was a first time effort of a fledgling director and it may have been his finest hour. Both star character actors with familiar faces who perform well in the lead roles. Both have much more style than they should given budget constraints. And both make me long for the days of cool black and white films.

Paul Wendkos will likely be remembered by most as the director of the very popular 1959 movie, Gidget, with Sandra Dee along with its subsequent sequels, Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963). Growing up in the 60's and 70's, I remember his name from the multitude of cool television shows he directed like The Untouchables, The FBI, I Spy and The Invaders as well as some of the more memorable made-for-TV movies like Terror on the Beach, The Legend of Lizzie Borden and The Death of Richie. Oddly his theatrical film work post-Gidget primarily consisted of war movies and westerns. For example, in 1969, he shot the first of two very good Euro-western hybrids in Spain, Guns of the Magnificent Seven (the third sequel to The Magnificent Seven). Easily the grittiest and most action-packed of the follow-ups in the series, the Italian-style westerns' dusty, brutal influence on Wendkos can clearly be seen. Likewise with his underrated 1971 Mexican revolutionary western starring George Peppard, Cannon for Cordoba, the Euro-western influence is very evident.
As Wendkos's theatrical movie directing slowly began to peter out in the mid-seventies, his continued success in made-for-TV movies insured his permanent residence in that medium. In 1976, he would direct his last motion picture, the utterly forgettable crime comedy, Special Delivery with Bo Svenson and Cybil Shepherd, and one year later he would helm the critically acclaimed drug awareness drama The Death of Richie with Ben Gazzara and Eileen Brennan thus sealing his TV career fate. Ironically, twenty years prior, Wendkos had made the best theatrical film of his career in his directorial debut.

The Burglar (1957), opens in such an unorthodox manner with Movietone-like newsreel footage from around the world, I momentarily thought I was watching the wrong film. But it's just a smart prologue to introduce the target of the burglary, a wealthy, phony spiritualist who appears in the last, human interest segment of the newsreel. As the scene cuts to the theater where the footage is being played, the titular character, Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea) is introduced watching the screen intently. It's a clever, efficient set-up that plunges the viewer right in just before the opening credits. It not only reveals the two major principles in the heist, but shows the victim as an unsympathetic con-woman and puts the viewer quickly in Duryea's corner before anything is even known about his character.

The first act of the film involves the introduction of the crew, the planning and execution of the heist and the complications that ensue. David Goodis, who wrote the screenplay based on his novel, wisely front-loaded the suspenseful and engaging aspects of the story and saved the character development for the post-burglary second act. In it, the complex relationship between Duryea's character, Nat, and his ward/accomplice Gladden (Jayne Mansfield) is explored. Though Nat has ambivalent feelings towards Gladden due to a pledge made to her father to take care of her, she is also a member of the crew. Duryea's character is stuck in the paradoxical position of trying to safeguard Gladden, but having a job and life that is detrimental to her. To complicate matters further, halfway through the story, Gladden professes her love for Nat, something that comes as no surprise to him, but is not reciprocated, at least not in the same way.

Though the middle act grinds out some necessary character development and introduces an additional female character that slows things up, the last act really brings it with Nat and Gladden's push-pull relationship reaching its apogee, the police closing in on the gang, and an unknown party, who has been stalking the crew, finally entering the picture. There's a lot of nice symbolism including the ending where Duryea and Mansfield's characters literally wind up in a carnival funhouse version of hell.

Duryea gives maybe his best, late career performance as the conflicted, world-weary, professional burglar. I recently re-watched him in the Audie Murphy western, Ride Clear of Diablo, where he plays an audacious, loose cannon gunfighter who could not have been more different from Nat, yet in both films Duryea's screen presence and skill are undeniable. The surprise though comes in Mansfield who was a better actress than the Monroe-wannabe stereotype with which she got tagged. It's a shame she didn't get more roles like this and The Wayward Bus where she plays serious, wiser-than-her-years characters who have some depth to them. Oddly, it was Mansfield's rise to stardom as the ditzy bombshell that shook this film loose for distribution as it had been languishing on the shelf for a couple of years. The two other members of the burglary crew are solid as well with comic actor Mickey Shaughnessy playing the sweaty fat bastard, Dohmer, who has eyes for Mansfield and German actor Peter Capell from Sorcerer and Paths of Glory as the intelligent but nervous, Baylock.

While the acting and writing are good, it's Wendkos' direction, editing and symbolically effective locations that really make the film a standout. In one scene, the emotionally trapped Duryea is shot through a jail bar-like bed headboard. In another, Mansfield's sexual isolation is exemplified by a distant overhead shot of her alone in the bedroom. Near the end, Duryea takes refuge in a remote shack across an empty marsh from Atlantic City where Mansfield's character resides. Again and again Wendkos effectively uses shots to convey the emotional state of his characters.

The shortcomings of the film mostly fall within the sluggish second act where Nat's allegiance to Gladden and his vow to her father are explained one too many times. The Martha Vickers character of Della seemed awkward and shoehorned into the plot for just one purpose towards the end. Also, the effort to keep the identity of the stalker a secret gets a little much towards the end and an earlier reveal could have had more impact than dragging it out.
Overall, considering the modest $90,000 budget, Wendkos made an imaginatively shot and engrossing late-cycle crime noir. Despite being his first film in a 40+ year career, it is likely his most artistically sound.


Dubbed a "forgotten master" by Quentin Tarantino, William Witney began his directing career at the age of 21 for Mascot Pictures which would later merge and become Republic Pictures. Although best known for his serials and westerns - the Roy Rogers singing cowboy features in particular - it's Witney's diverse range of genre films that prove most interesting. Everything from gangster pictures (The Bonnie Parker Story, City of Shadows) to juvenile delinquent dramas (Cool and Crazy, Young and Wild) to military action (Paratroop Command) to steam-punk (Master of the World) to blaxploitation (Darktown Strutters), Witney dipped his toe into a lot of subgenres. Although modestly budgeted efforts with limited resources and locations, Witney's films are decently paced, well photographed stories with some occasionally surprising style thrown in and usually feature some superb action set pieces. I know Mr. Tarantino is sometimes prone to be a little hyperbolic now and again, but in this case he's spot-on as Witney's 1961 espionage crime thriller, The Cat Burglar, can attest.

The film gets right down to business with the titular burglar, played by Witney-regular and future Combat! co-star, Jack Hogan, breaking into an anonymous apartment. Hogan, who's character is also named Jack, is accompanied by the jazzy, base-heavy, hepcat stylings of the film's music composer, Buddy Bregman giving the opening a very cool Playboy After Dark feel. Jack gets interrupted during his burgle by the beautiful tenant, Nan Baker, played by genre stalwart June Kenney (Attack of the Puppet People, Earth vs the Spider, Teenage Doll, and Bloodlust!). Nan has just returned to the country after picking up a briefcase containing a notebook for her boyfriend in Mexico. Fortunately for Jack (and all the male viewers), Nan decides to take a shower and leaves her valuables along with the briefcase on the dresser where Jack steals it before exiting. Unbeknownst to both Jack and Nan, the notebook contains secret missile plan formulas that Nan's boyfriend, Alan (John Baer) and his thuggish, foreign agent buddies are waiting to receive. Complications ensue.
Typical of Witney's work, The Cat Burglar is another low-budget expectation breaker with a surprising amount of attention to detail. For example, his shot set-ups and composition are pretty amazing given his limited time and resources and maximize the storytelling visually. In the ground level shot below, Nan's character goes looking for a bargain basement private investigator in a seedy flophouse:

In the next scene, she has a rather uncomfortable meeting with a corpulent detective, appropriately named Muskie (played by the incredibly awesome Bruno VeSota), in his unkempt room:

Later, the tough, foreign agents lay down the law to Nan's boyfriend, Alan. This shot is framed through the thug's arm while he stands threateningly over Alan.

When the thugs initially catch up to Jack, the visuals partially play out in a mirror:

And lastly, in the climatic warehouse scene, Witney brings on the light and shadow:

The screenplay was written by legendary character actor Leo Gordon and is direct and to the point but still better than it needs to be. Gordon, who is immediately recognizable as one of the great screen tough guys, surprisingly wrote over two dozen scripts for movies and television including The Wasp Woman and Attack of the Giant Leeches. Much like the latter two films, Gordon takes some time to flesh out the lead, Jack, and throw in some colorful side characters while still keeping the story moving. Unlike Duryea's character in The Burglar, Jack is a terrible amateur thief who lives in a cheap, trash-strewn motel room he can't afford. The owner/manager of the motel, Mrs. Prattle (Billie Bird), who pretentiously insists in white trash fashion on pronouncing her name pray-tell, is constantly busting Jack's chops for the rent.

The cast is made up from some of my favorite character actors from American International Pictures and Republic Pictures including Hogan, Kenney, and Baer as well as Gene Roth, Gregg Palmer and Bruno VeSota. The experience and natural presence of these actors goes along way in filling in the characters in the limited time they have on screen. Actors like Roth and VeSota don't have to do a lot of emoting to get across what their characters are all about, it's easily inferred by their mere presence.

The film does have its share of flaws like the character of bland Nan who has to be the most gullible person on earth not to smell a rat early on. Also, the music is good until it's used for comic stings or to denote danger at which point it becomes cartoonishly overt. Some of the street locations look less than cinematic and seemed like they were grabbed just to link two scenes. However, the ending warehouse shootout makes up for all sins because if there's anything Witney excels at in particular, it's action.

Comparing the two burglars, I'd have to say Wendkos' film has much more depth of character and emotional substance than Witney's. And while Witney has some moments of directorial flare as noted, Wendkos does an exceptional job throughout his feature. It's a little unfair to compare the lead actors who are in very different roles but Duryea owns in his hangdog performance whereas Hogan does just a passable workmanlike job in a much less ambitiously scripted part. With regard to pacing, Witney's moves much quicker but he does hold an advantage with a run-time that's nearly 25 minutes  shorter. Lastly, Wendkos' film feels much more cinematic and noir-ish than Witney's which could have passed for a very well-shot episode of television. Ultimately, Wendkos' The Burglar is the better, meatier steak but Witney's is still a tasty burger.

The Burglar 7.75/10
The Cat Burglar 6.50/10