Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Nightfall (1957) & The Burglar (1957)

by on March 28, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed April 4 at 6:30 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]

To compliment the upcoming anthology of five novels written by pulp maestro David Goodis, its editor Robert Polito (who brought us the invaluable Manny Farber criticism collection a few years back) and Library of America Editor in Chief Geoffrey O’Brien (who for my money, is one of our greatest film writers) will present and discuss two of the more rare Goodis-based noir classics.


O’Brien on Goodis’ work in Hardboiled America:

Goodis was one of the most distinctive writers of paperback originals. A single page is instantly recognizable, as much for its prose style as for its recurring obsessions. He wrote of winos and barroom piano players and small-time thieves in a vein of tortured lyricism all his own, whose very excesses seemed uniquely appropriate to the subject matter. He was a poet of the losers, transforming swift cut-rare melodramas into traumatic visions of failed lives.
In Nightfall Goodis creates an atmosphere where everything is symbolic – the oppressive heat of a summer night, a metal box of watercolors that crashes to the floor, the winding staircase where words of betrayal are overheard, the mountains toward which the hero flees – and at the same densely literal.
The Burglar stands out for its evocation of a Romantic deathwish in the context of a disposable drama of low-grade crooks coming unraveled in the wake up a bungled break-in, an evocation which culminates memorable in an offshore Leibestod in Atlantic City. The Burglar‘s prose style is notable as well: Goodis seems really to have worked on this one, piling on little flourishes of syncopation that remind us how musical his ear could be. If Jack Kerouac had written crime novels they may have sounded a bit like this, as bop prosody modulates the stark lines of pulp narration.

On to the films…

Time Out Film Guide:

This film noir first feature lays on the style from the start: a fake newsreel spotlights the wealthy spiritualist’s diamond necklace targeted by Duryea and cohorts, before a striking break-in sequence matches shock cuts with a pulsatingly brassy score. Our attention duly grabbed, Goodis’ adaptation of his own novel probes the psychological hinterland as the gang waits it out. Duryea is cagey, weighed down by responsibility for Mansfield as the daughter of the safecracker who took him in as a runaway. Meanwhile sweaty Capell is itching to fence the goods. Conflict breeds claustrophobia breeds… well, you know the rest. Wendkos doesn’t break the mould, but he decorates it with no uncertain panache, as spiralling misfortune leads to a somewhat Wellesian finale in an Atlantic City boardwalk funhouse.

Ronald Bergen for The Guardian:

Shamefully underestimated film noir, The Burglar, starring Dan Duryea as a jewel thief and Jayne Mansfield as his sexy accomplice. Mansfield was unknown at the time of shooting in 1955, but the film was released two years later by Columbia Pictures to cash in on her rise to fame. Written by David Goodis, from his own novel, it was atmospherically photographed in urban landscapes, ending with an exciting chase through the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey.


C. Jerry Kutner for Bright Lights Film Journal:

Wendkos would be far better known today if his first film, the great low-budget noir, The Burglar (1956), were more readily available. The Burglar, an unabashedly arty film based on the David Goodis novel of the same name, starred Dan Duryea in the title role, and Jayne Mansfield as his ward (a serious acting role that preceded her “bombshell” period). A fatalistic heist film clearly influenced by Orson Welles, particularly The Lady From Shanghai.

Steve Seid for Pacific Film Archive:

The City of Brotherly Love is that and then some in this Philly-based crime story written by David Goodis for his smudged hometown. With first-time director Wendkos, Goodis finally gets a shot at a pulp film equivalent to his dusky novels. Dan Duryea plays Nat Harbin, the ringleader of a small gang of thieves. He plans the heist of jewels from a flamboyant spiritualist, but a crooked cop gets wind of the scheme, and everything goes south. Never one to fuss over a plot, Goodis is more interested in the queasy connection between Duryea, his “adopted” sister, and their long-dead dad, a veteran burglar. An incestuous fog seems to permeate the proceedings as Duryea dotes on his mollish sis, played by Jayne Mansfield just before she hit it big with The Girl Can’t Help It. The Burglar would be considered a late noir, but not too late for Wendkos’s flamboyant imagery, dramatic use of close-ups, and dreamy soliloquies of sin and suffering.



Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Video Guide:

This is a serious feature. The Burglar opens with classic bad guy Dan Duryea in a theater watching an excellent (and convincing) newsreel about “Sister Sarah,” a famous, rich and fake spiritualist. He and his cronies rob the woman, hide out, and fight among themselves. They flee to Atlantic City, where they encounter a crooked cop and other serious problems. The film is filled with desperate, weary soul-searching characters and Cold War references, and was obviously patterned after several Orson Welles classics. The cinematography is exceelent, the acting is fine all around, and Jayne Mansfield wears a polka-dot bikini in one seen. Worth looking for just to see the diving horse and the old Steel Pier funhouse where mechanical ghouls repeat, “We, the dead, welcome you.”


Fred Camper for the Chicago Reader:

Paul Wendkos has directed both paranoid stylistic triumphs and bland programmers. This 1957 noir, his first, has amazing flourishes even if the storytelling sometimes goes slack. With the help of two pals and the stepsister who loves him, a career thief steals a necklace from a wealthy spiritualist, only to be pursued by a crooked cop. Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield give uncharacteristically serious performances, but the film’s best moments include a stunningly matched cut from a TV newscast to a burglar leaping a wall and the Wellesian newsreel opening and bizarre close—a chase at a carnival that makes the principals seem utterly isolated in space.



Clydefro Jones for his blog:

The beauty of Duryea’s performance in The Burglar lies in the unexpected restraint Duryea shows. There are ample silences, and gone is the usual jumpiness or friction. Nat is a tortured soul in the Goodis mold who’s sacrificed his life seemingly for two things, both of which involve the man who more or less raised him. That man was a thief who taught Nat how to steal professionally and only asked in return that he look out for his daughter Gladden (Mansfield) if anything ever happened to him. The complications here are mighty. For one, Gladden is, though not outwardly as bombshell sexy as her portrayer might imply, a young, attractive blonde who’s always looked up to Nat. Beyond that, the pair work in a group of four, one of which is a brutish, sweaty man who is constantly throwing unwanted stares at Gladden.
Shot on location in both Philadelphia and Atlantic City, the movie earns its mood honestly. The choices Wendkos makes are frequently daring and most often succeed at establishing a dingy, rundown atmosphere. These characters are holed up in sweaty little apartments and shacks. They struggle. Nat broods. Nothing ever seems to be as close to paying off as they try to fool themselves. It’s easy to get behind Nat but it’s unfortunately just as natural to expect an outcome which will be destructive in some way. The noir elements, particularly the more mature and developed themes found in the best efforts from the fifties, are on full display. Interesting compositions marked by an affinity for shadows and inky darkness would seem to have announced Wendkos as a major filmmaker. Indeed, in a time period when noir was coming to a close and far too many crime dramas were settling for an unimaginative television aesthetic, The Burglar is a beautiful alternative. It looks and feels deeply, darkly unsettling. The final sequence through AC’s Steel Pier amusement park is as enormously thrilling to watch as it is painful to digest. The film’s reputation, for whatever reason, has never really matched its potential impact. This is one of the darker, more downbeat and adult noirs made in the mid-fifties, and I’m inclined to say it’s also one of the best.


Anthony Lane for the New Yorker:

Aldo Ray was made for film noir, because he could be good, bad, and ugly all at once. He was tall and blond, with a winning smile, but the voice was hard and scratchy; you could strike a match against that windpipe. In Jacques Tourneur’s thriller from 1957, based on a David Goodis novel, Ray plays a commercial artist who gets framed for killing a doctor and goes on the run. Time and fate are against him, in the shape of two robbers (Brian Keith and a deranged Rudy Bond); on the plus side is a model (Anne Bancroft), who sits beside the hero at a bar, borrows five dollars for a Martini, and believes his story. The movie flits between the streets of Los Angeles and the broad, mountainous lands of Moose, Wyoming, where the loot was stashed, and where guilt and innocence alike can be hidden by a fall of snow. Some of the coincidences jar, but Tourneur’s command of contrast is impeccable (look out for the heavies at a fashion show), and the dark-eyed Bancroft, in her low and breathy tones, delivers a strong contender for the ultimate noir line: “You’re the most wanted man I know.”


Michael Atkinson for the L Magazine:

Will we ever tire of noir? Unlikely—it’s their time-and-place particularity, rising like mushrooms from the decaying roots of postwar culture, that makes them sing even today. Though you’d think by now that has-been is definitely the new never-was, the noirs live on in iconic resonance, because, ironically, they’re a nostalgist’s hot-coffee-in-the-face reality check, reminding us in no uncertain terms that the past we often idealize and dismiss was just as beset by misery and ruin as today. Maybe more so. Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall is a near-forgotten, fast-cheap-&-out-of-control sweat session, in which the hulking yet quivering Aldo Ray hits the Big City on the run from something very very bad, and crosses paths in a bar with Anne Bancroft, a used-abused waif with the defensive posture of squirrel among dogs. Soon enough Brian Keith, as a bloodspilling bank robbing anti-Aldo (they were both thick-necked Pacific-theater vets and look it), emerges and pushes the action back to the great wide open of Wyoming, where an oil rig becomes an impromptu torture appliance. Little of the David Goodis-based film is actually very dark; it’s the lawless, wintery mountain wilderness that generates more anxiety, and the forecast the film delivers of the Coen bros’ Fargo has been duly noted. Sans the Orphic torque of Tourneur’s Out of the Past, the movie still radiates a fight-or-flight inquietude that itself could serve as a mid-century axiom, a kind of feel-bad story America couldn’t stop telling itself.

Sean Axemaker for Parallax View:

A classic noir nightmare with Aldo Ray as the innocent man on the run from the police (who think he’s guilty of murder) and brutal bank robbers (who framed him) and Anne Bancroft as the emotionally bruised model who puts her trust in the tormented innocent. It’s adapted from a novel by David Goodis, whose best work plumbed the despair and helplessness of innocents wrapped in webs of violence and persecution that dragged down their souls along with their lives, while Tourneur brings out the fighting side of this victimized innocent with a tough/tender performance from Ray, an artist by trade living in the shadows of society where every stranger is a potential enemy. “Why me?” asks Bancroft when she stuck in the web after sharing a not-so-innocent (but far from guilt) drink that leads to a run-in with a pair of thugs. He tosses off his answer like a man living the question: “I ask myself that every night.” Crisply directed, scripted with gems of hardboiled lines (“You’re asking for it” / “I’m in an asking position”) and superbly paced, it’s a film of darkness and light that ends up in the snowy mountains of Wyoming, where violence throws its long shadow over the purity of the snowy hills. James Gregory brings a paternal warmth to his dogged insurance investigator, almost a guardian angel over the man he’s shadowing, driven as much by an innate sense of justice as by his responsibility to find a cache of stolen money, and Brian Keith plays the most affable yet deadly criminal of his career. He doesn’t leave witnesses, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys his work.



J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

Nightfall, directed in 1956 by the estimable Jacques Tourneur from a Stirling Silliphant–sanitized David Goodis novel, is not only a nifty late noir but a model of economical filmmaking—well-sketched atmosphere, deft characterizations, and a 78-minute running time.
Set in a lost America of neon signage and out-of-town newsstands, Nightfall is a wrong man flick, released the same year as Hitchcock’s, that’s heavy on sudden danger and instant love. “You’re the most wanted man I know,” the young, sultry Anne Bancroft tells beleaguered hero Aldo Ray, an ordinary guy who’s under constant, mysterious surveillance and is also being tracked by a pair of implacable desperados (Brian Keith and Actors Studio grad Rudy Bond, especially funny as the more sociopathic of the two). The blocky, oddly diffident Ray is tougher than the usual hapless Goodis hero—just as Bancroft is nicer and more demure than the typical Goodis dame.
Occupying 48 hours, the action shifts from the bright lights of Hollywood Boulevard to the snowy wilds of Wyoming—a pristine landscape that serves to emphasize the hero’s innocence. The cocktail lounge pickup is adroitly staged, the action climax is expertly choreographed, and a fashion show set piece is worthy of the master. Aspiring filmmakers should take notes.


Nicholas Rapold for Artforum:

One might look for the effects of ten years’ time—the era-straddling span between Jacques Tourneur’s noirs Out of the Past (1947) and Nightfall (1957)—in the voice of Aldo Ray. Playing, in the later film, a war vet who’s pursued by bank robbers, the bull-necked actor speaks with a baggy hoarseness, as if his character, Jim Vanning, has spent too many nights drinking and too many days keeping still till the shadows fall and give relief. Vanning looks a little worn out, but not glamorously so, and his savoir faire is that of the underdog who is called upon to hold his own rather than Robert Mitchum’s cool. Even his would-be femme fatale, Marie, who asks the underemployed illustrator (“Soup cans or sunsets?”) for a five-spot in a bar, turns out working-girl ordinary, played with something between understatement and resignation by a young Anne Bancroft.
Vanning’s nightmare begins, as explained in flashback, with an exploded 1950s idyll in the countryside: Hunting buddies (Jim and a doctor friend) investigate a crashed car only to find two fugitives who want no witnesses. “I can’t believe this is happening,” the shell-shocked doctor says. (Later, Marie: “Things that really happen are always difficult to explain.”) The cheerful brutality of one thug (Rudy Bond) is as unsettling as the likability of the other (later TV star Brian Keith).
The chase continues into the movie’s present, Jim and Marie teaming up, with efficient filmmaking that reflects ex-editor Tourneur’s talent for editing with the camera. Tourneur’s director of photography, Burnett Guffey, who shot In a Lonely Place, expresses Jim’s open-air paranoia at an oil derrick, an outdoor fashion show, and a cabin (in a scene whose sounds, snow, and sadism are cribbed in Fargo’s wood chipper climax). Select, fearful point-of-view shots help make a noir that’s not did-they-do-it or would-you-do-it but—streamlining David Goodis’s 1947 source novel—a question of can-they-make-it.



Daniel Kasman for MUBI:

Ray is perhaps noir’s least violent and least active hero, and lives a sensitive life of expected commuppance, which is where the Tourneur-sphere comes in—less evoked by the film itself, Aldo Ray’s existence in Nightfall seems forever beset by an existential awareness and sensitivity to mororse turns of fate and the danger of living life. You never know when you might have a run-in with a duo of killers. A glimmer of hope comes from a Los Angeles bar—itself a fine example of the beauty of Tourneur’s precision (which continues to be seen in the film’s uncomfortable fashion show set-piece and in most of the Wyoming sequences); the location is sharply delineated and atmospherically, almost documentarily, evoked inside and out by the filmmaker’s oddly tableaux-like use of widescreen and Burnett Guffey’s photography. There Ray meets Anne Bankcroft, and both seem used and abused not in a pointed, generic way—say, she being a loose woman and he tired of or haunted by wartime killing or some such nonsense—but rather beset by a strange weariness, something simply about living a solitary existence in 1957. Without the comfort of another (confident couples make up the rest of the film’s characters), something intangible is left amiss in the world.
Of course, in a work of horror or in a time of unrest, that thing would haunt the film and its characters, challenge them, be the focus of the story, the thrust of its energy. Nightfall again betrays expectations—the world is small, tense conversations between two people in vacant, lonely spaces, or the restrained singularity of flashbacks to the holdup and murder in the snowy countryside, reveries uncomfortable between the too good to be true friendship of Ray with the man he’s later accused of killing, and the sinister over-emphasis on the characters of the killers. In the 1930s the villains would have been a gang wearing ill-fitted suits, photographed in medium-long shot, be seen a couple sniveling scenes for local color and disappear; in the 1940s, this noir type would be exaggerated, caricatured, they’d be sidekicks filmed in grotesque canted angles and shot in the stomach two-thirds the way through the picture. Somehow the 1950s misunderstood the allure of horrifying secondary-role badies and brought them up to starring roles, as they are in Nightfall—an influence still felt today when the sophisticated, mysterious, or subtle evil-doer is too rare a thing to find when extreme stylization of villainy is so catchy.


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