It takes a special person to write noir . . . a bitter, lonely person plagued with disease and/or mental illness, awash in booze and/or drugs, who somehow manages to produce these dark nuggets of gold before dying in some horrible, lonely, bitter fashion.
Ah, the life of a writer! Don’t you wonder how Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Patricia Highsmith or Jim Thompson got up in the morning, let alone crafted their brilliant stories? And to this pantheon of dark talent we must now add David Goodis, who in his forty-nine years of life was one of the most prolific yet least remembered pulp authors.
In the early 1940’s, Goodis filled the vast array of pulp magazines with his stories, written under several names. He also tried his hand at screenwriting and worked under contract for Warner Brothers, although many of his treatments and scripts went unproduced. His chance for fame occurred when his second novel, Dark Passage, was adapted and directed by Delmer Daves into a 1946 film starring Bogie and Bacall (and the great Agnes Moorehead) that remains one of my favorites.
In 1957, Goodis got his first and only opportunity to adapt one of his own novels, 1953’s The Burglar, into a very low budget film. It was the first directing assignment for Paul Wendkos, perhaps most famous for helming all the Gidget movies, and one of the final big screen assignments for long-time cinematographer Don Malkames. Both of these men contribute some interesting work that makes The Burglar fun to watch for its visual imagination.
The best thing about the film, however, is the guy they got to play the Burglar. Dan Duryea, unlike all the noir authors whose films he graced, was a happily married father of two, a homebody and a Scoutmaster, who excelled at playing snivelling weaklings and sadistic villains. He was the guy you loved to hate in films like The Little Foxes, Scarlet Street and Winchester ’73, although he could also play nice guys and spoof his own bad boy status in Ball of Fire or The Jack Benny Show.
Here, Duryea plays Nat Harbin who, despite his profession, is a sympathetic character. As a boy, Harbin ran away from an orphanage and was taken in by a kindly man named Gerald, who also happened to be a professional burglar. Gerald taught Nat the tricks of the trade, including to never use a gun but to “steal clean”. The love of Gerald’s life is his sweet little girl Gladden, and he asks Nat to look after her well-being should anything happen to him.
Well, it does, and years later, Nat finds himself with a gang of his own – a pair of real neurotics played by Pete Capell and Mickey Shaughnessy – and Gladden has grown up to become Jayne Mansfield! Who’d have thought it? The biggest heist opportunity of their lives has presented itself, and of course you know it’s going to lead to death and destruction for nearly everyone.
Duryea is fine here as an essentially good man seeking redemption for the path he has chosen by honoring his promise to protect his mentor’s daughter. But she’s Jayne Mansfield, for God’s sake, and that complicates matters. For one thing, Gladden, all of twenty-three, is very much in love with Nat, who in the film presents himself as thirty-five, although Duryea pretty much looks every bit his fifty years of age. For another, her presence in the gang, who she helps out by casing potential heist locales, seems to enrage Baylock (Capell) and enflame the lusts of Dohmer (Shaughnessy), to the point where Nat sends her to Atlantic City for her own good. But she’s . . . well, she’s Jayne Mansfield, folks, so even laying out on the Jersey beach gets her into trouble as she hooks up with a person even more neurotic and evil than Baylock and Dohmer.
You probably want to discover some of these twists and turns for yourself, some of which are provided by Martha Vickers, so good at being bad in The Big Sleep. Her role is small here, but she makes it count. Many of the storytelling elements are fascinating, too, like the opening newsreel (which made me wonder for a minute if I had clicked the wrong movie) and some unusual uses of flashback and crosscutting.
So, what is it that gives me pause in fully recommending The Burglar? My problem can be epitomized by the score, a never-ending cantata of high-pitched hysteria, which seems to push the actors into greater and greater heights of melodrama. I know that Baylock is desperate to go to Central America with his take of the spoils. I know that Gladden’s Jersey boyfriend has several screws loose from all the twitching hands and laser-like stares. And even a fool like me knows that Gladden Mansfield itches and burns and itches some more for Nat to, ahem, show her some attention.
Sure, the genre lends itself to high stakes and intense emotions. But maybe I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang, who lent their noir films such a stylish tone. Maybe I miss Jacques Tourneur, who showed us in Out of the Past that the best noir transcends melodrama. In the end, I can’t help but feel for Nat because Duryea is always that good. But it isn’t like it was with Jeff in Out of the Past, who shares a similar fate. There I also felt something . . . and I didn’t have to work so hard.
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A year earlier, another film had come out based on a Goodis novel, 1948’s Nightfall. Its story is more traditional than The Burglar, another twist on the “wrong man” theme so favored by Alfred Hitchcock. Here, however, the team behind the film couldn’t be any better. None other than Jacques Tourneur himself is directing, and the screenplay is by Sterling Silliphant, whom one can describe as the Hemingway of genre screenwriting. This man had a profound impact on my life, starting with his early work for Disney, where he developed many of the stories that were dramatized on The Mickey Mouse Club. (I did wear my ears when I watched. I thought my mother looked like Annette.) He created the TV series Perry Mason, Naked City, and Route 66. His film credits span In the Heat of the Night, for which he nabbed an Oscar nomination, and The Poseidon Adventure.
I believe Nightfall was only Silliphant’s third screenplay, and he is teamed up with Tourneur and the great cinematographer Burnett Guffey, whose work we saw earlier in class in In a Lonely Place and who won two Academy Awards (for From Here to Eternity and Bonnie and Clyde). Tough guy Aldo Ray here plays a nice man driven to a “dark night of the soul” that has been going on for months. He plays commercial artist Jim Vanning, who on a camping trip in Wyoming with his best friend, “Doc” Gurston (Frank Albertson, the lecherous client in Psycho), sees a car go off the road and rushes to provide assistance. This proves to be an unlucky move because the occupants of the car are two bank robbers: John (Brian Keith) who is charming but ruthless, and Red (Rudy Bond) who is sadistic but crazy.
What follows from that meeting forces Jim on the run for a very long time, and when the movie begins, he is a sad (but well-dressed) loner, wandering the city and frequenting bars (one of which plays the theme song from Nightfall – and the music in this movie, by George Duning, is terrific.) On this night, Jim has two fateful encounters, one with a kindly-seeming man named Ben Fraser (James Gregory, who was in a million movies and TV shows, but I will always remember him as Johnny Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate) and the other with a lovely but Bitter with a capital B young woman named Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft, three films away from The Miracle Worker and permanent stardom).
I’ll admit it: Nightfall is a film we’ve all seen before, with recognizable characters and a predictable story arc. But every element of it is well done, including the editing by William A. Lyon (Oscar winner for From Here to Eternity and Picnic), who skillfully intercuts between flashbacks and the present and shifts us around between the hunters and the hunted as this dark night stretches into a nightmare for our hapless hero. I couldn’t find the production budget, but it looks more expensive than The Burglar. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Aldo Ray, but he is always sympathetic here, and Bancroft, Keith, Bond, and Gregory are sensational throughout. (Gregory’s character is married, and there’s nobody who plays a devoted wife better than Jocelyn Brando, who did the same, albeit fatally, for Glenn Ford in The Big Heat.)
More of Goodis’ work can be seen in French adaptations, as his subject matter and style seemed to inspire the New Wave. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, I can highly recommend the trio of Dark Passage, The Burglar and Nightfall. Maybe the style of The Burglar is less to my taste but, made on the cheap as it was, it is never less than interesting. Meanwhile, Nightfall is great, and Dark Passage is just shy of brilliant. And, lo, we watched the films and saw that they were Goodis.
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Next week, the end of 50’s film noir brings us to . . . well, I’m sure many of you can guess what our main film will be. I guarantee you an explosive ending to our class.