Quickly. Jayne Mansfield. What comes instantly to mind?
We’re betting that most classic movie fans would reply, “Sexpot,” “B-list Marilyn Monroe” or perhaps more creatively, “the starlet whose exposed bosom alarmed a young Sophia Loren” (see above).
We seriously doubt that not many would respond with “a promising film noir femme fatale who could act.”
The truth is that Mansfield was both these things.
Her Hollywood career, begun in the mid-Fifties, was capped by her signature titles: the 1956 sex comedy The Girl Can’t Help It and 1957’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. Not to mention 1957’s The Wayward Bus, an adaptation of a John Steinbeck novel in which Mansfield portrays a stripper.
In all three movies, Mansfield was trodding a path carved out so successfully by Marilyn Monroe. (Tom Ewell, Manfield’s costar in The Girl Can’t Help It, also played the guy who appreciatively studied Monroe in the famous skirt billowing scene in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch.)
By the Sixties, Mansfield was making films in England such as Too Hot To Handle (aka Playgirl After Dark) — dubious ventures which capitalized on her Hollywood sexpot image. And by 1967, she was dead at age 34 in an auto accident.
But her very early career includes notable film noirs in which Mansfield had interesting parts. In 1956’s Female Jungle, she held her own against such genre stalwarts as Lawrence Tierney and John Carradine. In 1955’s Illegal finds her in the company of no less than Edward G. Robinson.
In The Burglar, Mansfield contributes a constrained and remarkably sedate (fully clothed throughout) performance as a budding but insecure young woman protected by the leader of a jewelry heist gang played by film noir stalwart Dan Duryea.
The movie was directed by Paul Wendkos and was scripted by David Goodis based on his own novel. (The picture was shot largely in Philadelphia; a shootout in the finale, was filmed at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, N.J.)
Although Mansfield’s part is hardly glamorous in the picture, it’s said she impressed jaded film crew members by her looks and on-camera sexiness. Interestingly, The Burglar was shot during the summer of 1955, but sat on the shelf until June of 1957.
How come? Well, by the time of the movie’s commercial release, Mansfield had established herself in her two big hits: The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. What better time to capitalize on Mansfield’s solid, underplayed, fully clothed performance in The Burglar?
By then, Manfield’s career in film noir was over.