Breaking In

May 11, 2020

breakinginA house is being burgled. But there’s something strange going on, even by criminal standards. As the veteran safecracker is breaking in through the back door, a young punk thief is going in through an upstairs window. When they meet in the house, each thinks the other lives there, until they realize they’re both crooks.

Then they relax and get along fine. This is the first of many refreshing wrinkles in Breaking In, a movie that brings together two of the most distinctive filmmaking talents today: John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven), who wrote the script, and Bill Forsyth (Local Hero), the Scottish director.

Both men always have had a bright and ironic way of looking at things, and this collaboration consistently hits the right notes.

Turns out, the story is really about a mentor, the aging thief, teaching his techniques to a young pupil. After they run into each other, the old pro, Ernie, decides to pass along his secrets to Mike, who doesn’t seem to know a thing about burgling – or anything else.

Ernie teaches Mike more than just how to blow a safe. He teaches him a thieves’ code, a way of doing things, a certain classiness. While they’re stealing thousands of dollars from a supermarket payroll safe, Ernie scolds Mike for swiping an apple.

Mike gains a nickname – Ernie’s cronies insist on that – and meets a hooker, (Sheila Kelley) with whom he falls in love. She’s so persuasive she convinces Mike to buy a gold Cadillac because it matches her wigs.

The film meanders in an entirely modest but captivating way. The ethics of stealing are not an issue, by the way. This is a story, not a moral essay. They go to steal a safe from an evangelical organization, and Mike asks, “Are we doin’ the right thing?” To which Ernie can only reply, “No, kid, we’re doin’ the wrong thing. We’re thieves.”

Forsyth directs it all in his customary generous deadpan, and gets two nice lead performances. Casey Siemaszko (the best friend in Biloxi Blues and one of the Young Guns) is properly loose-limbed and slightly dimwitted as Mike. As Ernie, Burt Reynolds is made up to look older than he really is, and he carries the age with grace and humor, like the old pro he plays. It’s an understated and effortless performance, just the thing to restore some of the luster to his flagging career. Not that the movie will be a big hit – it won’t – but a little prestige can go a long way.

First published in The Herald, October 1989

They gave the kid a nickname and I don’t mention it? Seems odd. A nice movie, even if the great Forsyth directing another person’s script is something that doesn’t quite catch fire. I see I was able to restrain myself from declaring that Sheila Kelley was going to be the Next Big Thing, which I was doing around this time. The cast also includes Harry Carey, Jr., Stephen Tobolowsky, and Albert Salmi, whose last film this was. Salmi died in 1990 in Spokane in an apparent murder-suicide with his wife, in which it would appear he was not the victim.