‘The Burglar’ on TCM

The Burglar (1957), a sweaty, tawdry pulp crime thriller set in the seedy lower depths of low-rent crooks and raw passions, was released as the classic studio system — and the era of prime film noir — was coming to an end. It both looks back to the tales of down-and-out criminals in a world of shifting loyalties and betrayals and forward to the more lurid suggestions of sixties movies and the stark imagery and striking location shooting more common to independently-made films.

Novelist David Goodis, author of such classics as Dark Passage (which was turned into a 1947 classic with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) and Down There (transformed by Francois Truffaut into the nouvelle vague masterpiece of doom Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), adapted his own novel for the screen, and Paul Wendkos, a documentary filmmaker and a fellow Philadelphian, made his feature debut directing the film. Bringing it even closer to home, Wendkos shot the film largely in Philadelphia in the summer of 1955 (Wendkos captures the sweltering atmosphere of the city in summer) and even used the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra to perform the score.

The great character actor Dan Duryea centers the film with an easy, almost world-weary confidence as Nat Harbin, a career criminal and veteran safecracker who steals a priceless necklace and then holes up in a dump of a safe house in a seedy part of the city with his not-altogether-trustworthy gang.

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Plays on Friday, June 14 on Turner Classic Movies

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Volume III – Five Minor Classics

From the TCM Vault Collection

I like to think of myself as something of a noir-teurist. I love the genre (and I use the term here loosely, as film noir is really more of an attitude and a style than a specific genre) and I enjoy exploring the work of particular directors whose work embraces the noir aesthetic. But in addition to directors, there are other defining creative collaborators: actors and authors and producers and even studios can all prove to be illuminating ways to group films.

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Volume III (TCM Vault Collection), a collaboration between Sony Picture and Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, continues the superb series of box sets showcasing some of the less celebrated noirs from Columbia Pictures in the classic era. You might say it uses the term “classic” generically (as in any films before 1960), but that’s not to denigrate the films in this collection. These are minor gems polished out of low budget productions. It’s just that Columbia had its own house style when it came to the studio-bound films of the forties, a particular way with its backlot street and shadowy lighting and foggy atmosphere in place of sets or locations. You can see a little of that here but like the previous sets, this collection illustrates the flexibility of the term “film noir” to encompass outliers in the shadowy, cynical American crime dramas of the forties and fifties.

My Name is Julia Ross (1945), the earliest film in this set, is more gothic psychodrama with a contemporary British setting seeped in old world flavor and a Gaslight plot, while Drive a Crooked Road (1954), barely ten years later, is a sunbright California crime drama, what I like to call beachhouse noir, a world away from the classic nocturnal urban style with its coast highways and sunny beaches and sleek West Coast architecture. The former has the noir visual palette – rooms that become increasingly suffocating, windows covered in bars to turn the manor into a virtual prison, the webs of criss-crossing shadows when night falls on the film (and the heroine) – and the latter the sour opportunism and contemptuous arrogance under the chummy surface of good-time guys snaring a repressed innocent into their criminal web. The Burglar (1957), brings both of those aspects together in a more sordid world of twitchy crooks, flophouse hideouts, duplicity as a way of life, and an atmosphere dripping in sexual longing and lust, with fractured, jagged storytelling and gargoyle close-ups that move the expressionism of the early noir classics into a more contemporary world.

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