d. Paul Wendkos (1957)
'We, the dead, welcome you'.
Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea, weary as hell) is a career criminal, a break in expert. He has never been caught, never been photographed, never been finger printed. Neither has he ever been particularly successful, living in a series of crummy rooms in slummy streets, eking out a living for himself and his adopted sister, Gladden (Jayne Mansfield!). They are in love with each other, but something always gets in the way: life, usually, and Nat’s higher sense of obligation and morality to the girl he has looked after since she was a kid. Maybe if things were different they could be happy, live a different life. Maybe. Nat is like a sleepwalker, locked into himself, indifferent to almost everything apart from the instinct to put one foot in front of the other. Even love is a burden.
Nat decides that he needs a big score, so forms an ‘organisation’: him, Gladden, a whining weakling called Baylock and a sleazy psychopath called Dohmer. Together they steal a sapphire necklace from a shifty spiritualist called Sister Phoebe. It’s worth a cool $150,000, and they think they can get $80,000 for it. What they actually get is death, hunted down by a crooked cop who wants the necklace for himself.
As you might expect from a film noir based, like Nightfall, on a book by arch fatalist David Goodis, The Burglar is dark, inky black in places. The characters are lost causes, stuck on predetermined routes to sordid ends. They all need someone to talk to, someone to listen. They will end up unsung, unremembered, unburied, left in crumpled heaps or in hastily dug holes by the side of the road. The drama is played out in huge sudden close ups and in flashing action cuts, all to the blaring of an occasionally intrusive brass and vibes score. Everything about this grim little story is played big, as if it mattered, as if any of it mattered.
At the climax, in the bustling amusement arcades and tourist attractions of Atlantic City (‘the playground of the world’) the characters play out their last scenes in sudden isolation, as if they are the only people on the planet. In the end, Nat finally gets what he wanted all along: he is put of his misery. Gladden survives, the only one young enough and innocent enough to still have a shot at something else, at someone else. What happens to the necklace? Who cares?