Saturday, June 25, 2016

THE CAT BURGLAR (1961)


This film opens with night moves by petty thief, Jack Hogan, climbing on balconies and roofs in his cat burglar apparel, a black sweatshirt and a flat cap. Hogan shines as the burglar, giving the distinct impression we are watching a young James Caan. When his character audibly shares his inner thoughts his vocals pull it off with a natural flair. The film feels promising, too, when accompanied by the opening Buddy Bregman jazz score. Some location shooting and numerous period vehicles helps bolster the limited budget. The story, written by Leo Gordon, prolific television actor, screenwriter, novelist and all-around burly guy, has a subplot which I did not see coming so some kudos are in order for this. But this is a solid B-movie so expect the usual awkward scenes which have now become amusing.



Hogan steals a briefcase from June Kenny’s apartment hoping to find something of value. His usual pattern is to fence his take at a local pawn shop run by Gene Roth. Roth is effective here as the stereotypical cigar smoking owner with an annoying cough. Hogan’s contents do not bring much of value except for a notebook he thought worthless. He leaves that behind in his trash can.

Kenny, the unsuspecting briefcase courier, tells her boss/boyfriend, John Baer, about the theft and his only concern is that notebook. Without telling the viewer how, Kenny manages to locate a rotund, unkempt man in a sleazy apartment complex. He is downtown’s official informant and takes her to the pawn shop. After telling her story, Roth knows to contact the cat burglar. After paying Hogan for the briefcase contents, Roth returns the briefcase back to Kenny. Baer is not amused the notebook is still missing and verbally assaults Roth assuming he knows where it is.



Greedy mastermind, Gregg Palmer, learns of the missing case and questions his partner, Baer. In surprisingly low camera angles, we have a detailed view of his waistline and trouser cut as he comes down on Baer’s recklessness in commanding form. It demands we see his face. But the cameraman cannot find Palmer’s face in his viewfinder. Another low camera position in the film may be an experiment in the attempt for an avant garde touch. When we hear Palmer’s threatening words as he thrusts a newspaper’s damaging headline at Baer, it is immediately followed by six descending notes of doom from a trombone, da-da-dum, da-da-dum. It is the funniest element in the film and repeated often just when you would expect it. The very same quintessential notes of doom used for years in many comedy skit parodies.

Before dumping the notebook, Hogan tore out a couple pages to level his teetering dresser which his motel owner refuses to fix until he pays his rent. He arranges to get the notebook back to Kenny after a rather ambitious plan for a guy who calls himself a “crumb.” He painstakingly writes out several fake pages to fill out the notebook and get a fast hundred dollar reward.

Baer meets with Palmer who is enraged by the pages of gibberish in the notebook. Not the engineering plans for a new ICBM propulsion unit he expects to trade on the black market. I did not see the national security angle coming. They immediately head for Hogan’s motel room and Palmer’s muscle gives Hogan a thorough beating. But the thug is not quite comfortable enough. Wanting to get down to business, he takes his suit coat off, slowly rolls up his sleeves and intends to finish him off before Palmer tells him to stop. With this vicious beating, Hogan realizes that notebook must have high value.

Daffy Billie Bird, Mrs. Prattle, is the motel owner. She insists everyone pronounce it Praytel. The Praytel Motel does have a ring to it. Comically, she grumbles about being interrupted in the middle of nothing important. Drag racing legend, Tommy Ivo, plays her somewhat dimwitted son who helps Hogan locate the notebook after trash removal day. Hogan suspects Baer is up to no good.

Kenny, assuming the benefit of the doubt, tells Baer that Hogan thinks he is involved in espionage. Da-da-dum! Da-da-dum! With lies spewing left and right, she soon finds that Palmer is not a police lieutenant, either. Hogan is waiting in a warehouse full of empty, blank boxes with the notebook. As the last to enter the warehouse, Palmer releases Baer of any future and seriously wounds Hogan. At the clichéd elevated position, he and Palmer struggle, both (stuntmen) falling onto the aforementioned empty boxes to break their fall. Both die from severe paper cuts. Blood everywhere. Perhaps. You will have to watch it yourself.


At sixty-five minutes this black and white film is pretty decent for the era. Except for Kenny, whose untrained voice and stage presence hurts her performance, and the young Ivo, everyone is first rate. Admittedly, Palmer is a bit over-the-top. The music score is cool in the beginning yet becomes stale as the movie progresses with the same riff repeated over and over by the jazz combo. Bregman’s score is appropriate for the title but writing for films may not have been his forté.

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