Jersey Reflections: Local Cult Classic

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Jersey Reflections


By Vince Farinaccio


A Columnist for the Grapevine


Television pay services help movie buffs relive Atlantic City’s past through select films.
Atlantic City has been a mainstay of the summer season since its inception in the 1850s, and its reputation as the “Playground of the World” survived much of the 20th century. But changes have overtaken the town on several occasions, and anyone who has regularly visited the resort throughout the past 60 years will recall the end of its pre-casino days and the birth of the city’s gaming era. But those days of yesteryear have not been completely erased thanks to cinema, and anyone interested can take advantage of TV pay services to relive Atlantic City’s past through select films.
A good place to begin would be The Burglar, a 1957 film noir starring Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield. The movie is a time capsule filled with phone booths, rotary telephones, 15-minute news programs and cigarette-smoking characters, but what will appeal to most area residents is its depiction of 1950s Atlantic City and Philadelphia.
Directed by Philadelphian Paul Wendkos, The Burglar is a fatalistic film about a Philadelphia jewelry heist perpetrated by Nat Harbin (Duryea) and his gang, whose only female member is Gladden (Mansfield). Forced to lay low for a time before fencing the merchandise, Nat offers Gladden a choice of going to Wildwood or Atlantic City. The latter is selected, and the first shots of a sultry Mansfield at the resort catch her sunbathing on the beach and riding in a boardwalk tram.
The Burglar is late-period noir, so there is an attempt to contextualize its tale with the perceived threats of the late 1950s. However, rather than incorporate nuclear obliteration into its plotline as Kiss Me Deadly did, it chooses only to remind its audiences of the Communist scare through news reports about China and the Soviet Union.
The screenplay is by Philadelphian David Goodis, who would soon receive international attention when French director Francois Truffaut filmed one of his stories as Shoot the Piano Player. It does suffer from pulp-fiction dialogue, but its plot turns and duplicitous characters, from the spiritualist whose mansion is burgled at the start of the film to the alluring Della who captures Nat’s attention, are enough to make up for it.
The final portion of the movie is set against a casino-less Atlantic City skyline and its climax, which includes an eerie visit to a Steel Pier funhouse reminiscent of the conclusion of Orson Welles’ Lady from Shanghai, contains enough footage to illustrate what Atlantic City was like on a summer’s night more than half a century ago. Boardwalk shops sold peanuts and taffy even back then and, inside the Steel Pier, trapeze artists performed and the famous diving horse entertained throngs of people.
While en route to Atlantic City, Nat and his cohorts are stopped by police, an encounter that quickly turns violent. Afterwards, a police report demonstrates the accuracy of the script when it informs us that Nat and his team are traveling east on the White Horse Pike from Hammonton. Unfortunately, moments later when we return to Philadelphia, a police captain pinpoints the location of the incident on a map, explaining that it was on “the Black Horse Pike, one mile this side of Hammonton.” So much for continuity.
Philadelphia’s role in the film is just as prominently featured. As Steven Rea pointed out in a 2001 review of The Burglar, the film “begins in the Narberth Theater… and goes on to a Manayunk hideout, a roadhouse called the Cynwyd Lounge, and the old Dolfinger Estate at Highland and Montgomery Avenues…” In a later montage sequence, Nat ponders his situation at Independence Hall and a pre-Rocky Museum of Art and Gladden catches the train to Atlantic City from 30th Street Station. The film’s memories, however, are not confined to just locations. In one segment, WCAU news anchor John Facenda, a mainstay for years in Philadelphia media, puts in an appearance as himself.
It took two years for The Burglar to be released once filming was complete, but it has since become a sort of local cult classic. Over the last decade, it has played more than a few times in Philadelphia, largely due to its glimpse into this area’s past. And the restored print currently offered by On Demand is the way you want to see this film.