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Breaking In

by Glenn Erickson Jan 15, 2022

Favorite director Bill Forsyth lends his knack for droll understatement to a screenplay by John Sayles, a crime tale that opts for keen character study and doesn’t stretch credibility. Burt Reynolds has a gem of a role as a career burglar doing his bit for the next generation, showing a ‘new guy’ the ins and outs of thievery; Casey Siemaszko is his thick-headed but resolutely faithful assistant on several outrageous heists. The criminal life almost doesn’t seem too terrible — except for the going-to-prison part. The disc commentary with Forsyth and Sayles is a great listen.

Breaking In
KL Studio Classics
1989 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 94 min. / Street Date January 11, 2022 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Casey Siemaszko, Sheila Kelley, Lorraine Toussaint, Albert Salmi, Harry Carey Jr., Maury Chaykin, Stephen Tobolowsky.
Cinematography: Michael Coulter
Production Designer: Adrienne Atkinson
Film Editor: Michael Ellis
Original Music: Michael Gibbs
Written by John Sayles
Produced by Harry Gittes
Directed by
Bill Forsyth

Getting within viewing reach of a Bill Forsyth film is always a treat. Most people adore the very mainstream Local Hero but the reputations of the charming Gregory’s Girl and the eccentric Comfort and Joy are up there as well. I wondered what Forsyth would possibly do in a movie with Burt Reynolds, but the moment we see the star on screen we’re reassured that everything’s going to work out. Breaking In is about a professional burglar and safecracker, but it’s not going to satisfy fans of high-tech Michael Mann heists — the capers are amusing but not particularly flashy, or directed with an eye toward stylishness.

The screenplay by John Sayles is a buddy / apprentice tale that different directors would interpret entirely differently. Forsyth takes it in a direction his producers probably didn’t want — purposely low-key and unsensational. Forget the smiling faces on the top photo above. Even with Sayles’ fanciful character details and wry observations, this is not a ‘fun suspense’ lark but a droll, halfway serious character study.

The title would seem to be be a double entendre: burglars specialize in break-ins, and most of what we see is an experienced thief ‘breaking in’ a younger one. Aspiring crooks take note: if these lessons in larceny are bogus, they fooled me.


Career safecracker Ernie Mullins (Burt Reynolds) gets a surprise one evening while raiding a suburban residence: he’s joined by a punk who slips into random houses just for thrills, to snoop around, raid the refrigerator, and read other people’s mail. Young Mike Lafebb (Casey Siemaszko) seems utterly clueless, but he’s also ‘morally unbound’ and not easily spooked. Ernie takes him on as a sort of apprentice & partner, to replace a pal who died. Ernie is pushing 60. He has gray in his hair and a bad limp, and he lives a careful low-profile lifestyle to remain invisible to law enforcement. He’s even taken up iron sculpture to explain why he has a basement full of tools and welding equipment.

Ernie’s social life?  He plays cards regularly with his friends Johnny Scot and ‘Shoes’ (Albert Salmi & Harry Carey Jr.). They’re retired crooks and chislers, just like him. If they’re a mellow threesome, it’s probably because they’re grateful not to be in prison.

The duo embarks on a series of crimes that pay rather well. Ernie handles the maladroit Mike with patience, even if the kid is a slow learner. The targets are good and Ernie knows clever ways of ‘getting in’; they’ll steal from almost anyone, even a religious shelter that collects charity money. Ernie shows Mike how to make his own plastic explosive for blowing really tough safes. Just as often, he’ll just yank a safe out of a wall because he knows the back side is soft metal easily ripped open.

Ernie has a bankroll socked away, something his neighbors would never guess. He lives in a rented house and drives an old car. He blows some of his money at the track and otherwise amuses himself with luxuries he can pay cash for — good meals, and reliable hookers for sex when he needs it. He tries to show Mike that maintaining the appearance of a dull, no-frills life is important, but his acolyte just doesn’t understand. Mike rebels when he’s told he can’t throw his money around; he also quits his 9-5 job that gave him a good ‘front.’ Pretty soon Mike is spending big wads of cash on a showy car to impress Carrie (Sheila Kelley), a hooker even more clueless than he is. We know things won’t go well when he leases a fancy apartment, and pulls 5,000 in bills from his pockets to pay for it. The rental agents probably think Mike sells drugs.

But the teacher and the pupil team up for one more big heist, at an amusement park on the 4th of July. It takes some good planning to crack an ancient but formidable safe in a basement under a roller skating rink. They go into it as they always do, confident that nothing will go wrong.

We’ve seen plenty of dramas showing how ‘innocent’ kids become hardened criminals. Breaking In was consistently promoted as a comedy () yet its prime story thread follows Mike Lafebb’s convincing transition into the criminal life. He may still be a fool at the fade-out, but now he’s an experienced one. His lies fool nobody but we know what he’ll be doing in the future. The only element that seems too sweet and optimistic is that betrayal never becomes a factor. Mike stupidly tells the cops too much but he never implicates his buddy Ernie.

The sad lesson about the criminal life is that there’s no such thing as absolute loyalty, even if Mike’s behavior follows the myth of Honor among Thieves. Mike and Ernie’s last words show that they’re loyal to the criminal creed, not each other. Mike’s new stature among his fellow inmates can give him the illusion that he’s carrying on the proud (?) tradition of Ernie, Johnny Scot and ‘Shoes.’

Is membership in the Bill Forsyth fan club mandatory for liking Breaking In?  I can’t say. This isn’t the kind of buddy film Neil Simon might write, with incompatible personalities and big laughs. Eddie and Mike’s adventures don’t become fashionably outrageous, as in the very entertaining Midnight Run. Forysyth instead mines a constant string of amusing moments, learning about Ernie’s odd lifestyle, and wondering why the clueless Mike isn’t already in prison.

The movie’s ‘R’ rating apparently comes from one scene. The prostitute/girlfriend Carrie regales Mike with some drivel poetry she’s written, Bonnie Parker- style. It’s innocent-grotesque, with some crude sex references, as pathetic as it is endearing. Did Forsyth include it because he wanted the film to receive an’R’?  The director’s fans might have expected him to be more gentle. On the other hand, Carrie’s professional offer of of a condom to Mike shows real wit — she first asks him what his favorite color is.


Burt Reynolds really understands the tone of this picture; he underplays beautifully and brings out Eddie’s basic charm. Eddie’s anonymous lifestyle decrees that no matter what he does, none of his feats can be made public. Writer John Sayles says that he addressed this idea when Ernie Mullins makes a hole-in-one on a golf course, but with no witnesses. Ernie needs a break-in partner, but he also needs someone to serve as an ‘audience,’ to witness who he is and what he does. As John Sayles explains, guiding Mike is the best Ernie can do to establish a feeling of family.

Actor Casey Siemaszko initially doesn’t seem interesting enough to play Eddie’s crazy kid sidekick. But as the movie fixates on Mike Lafebb’s ‘growth’ into full-bore crook-dom, we appreciate Siemaszko’s performance more. When he flaunts all of Ernie’s rules he becomes a red flag that detectives can’t possibly miss when rounding up the usual suspects. Mike doesn’t even know enough to get rid of charred loot that he accidentally blew up blasting a safe. But it hardly matters: that flashy car and luxury apartment just do not go with Mike’s official non-income.


Mike isn’t dumb, exactly, and maybe he hasn’t much imagination. But that’s a good quality when your job requires iron nerves. Working on a bowling alley’s security system, he somehow makes all of the pinsetting mechanisms operate at once, starting a racket that would wake the dead. Even that doesn’t spook him, or make him bolt for the exit. The cops can’t believe how well he keeps a straight face when lying so transparently. A judge is repelled by Mike’s lack of sophistication — and insults him for wearing white socks with a dark suit.

The show was filmed in Portland Oregon, apparently before that city’s trendy makeover; Mike and Ernie scrounge in junkyards and are able to recover trash bags filled with loot simply by dropping by the city dump as the garbage trucks unload. Each of the robberies we see has its own weird circumstances, which for Ernie is all in a day’s work. Sometimes it’s easier to chop a safe out of a wall and haul it away. Cutting through the roof of a market, they’re cornered by an unexpected Doberman Pinscher guard dog — but the outcome is far different than that suffered by George Kennedy in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The dogs, by the way, are hilarious … Dobermans are perfect ‘straight men’ for Forsyth’s quiet sense of humor.

Breaking In shows that crime pays, but that you can’t enjoy the money and not get caught. Mike’s big cash expenditures for cars, etc., don’t win him friends or companionship. He likes Carrie but she’s incapable of real relationships. Ernie’s found a paid girl ‘for the moment’ in Delphine (Lorraine Toussant), a pleasant and reliable sex vendor. Everybody gets along and has a good time on their night out — but the shadowy lifestyle precludes bonds of personal trust.


Breaking In is nowwhere near as fatalistic as Straight Time, another crime picture I’m currently reviewing. Ernie and his group of old-school retire crooks might seem unrealistic to fans of Martin Scorsese — his crime films harp on the disgusting level of greed and betrayal to be found in underworld circles. Instead, without the script saying so, we see Mike ‘wise up’ to the reality he’s chosen for himself. The kid becomes a pawn in a pitiful negotiation between his lawyer and the D.A. (Maury Chaykin and Stephen Tobolowsky, both marvelous) and still keeps his mouth shut. Mike doesn’t fold up when his girl Carrie doesn’t stick by him. By the time he’s reached his first prison environment he’s already acquired a reputation — underworld credibility.

Burt Reynolds and Casey Siemaszko do some very special work here, and not the kind likely to be appreciated by reviewers looking for flash and impact. Roger Ebert gave it a positive write-up, but not the kind of review that sends readers looking for show times. “Maybe it’s just a well-written, well-directed picture” is honest praise, but it doesn’t sound like words from a critic on fire.

The film’s saving grace, criminality- wise: although Mike and Ernie remain steadfast to each other, they aren’t a team. Each must stay isolated, on their own. It’s interesting to see Bill Forsyth’s observant, affectionate and ‘loose’ approach to character applied to a crime story. We’re told that his first feature That Sinking Feeling is about young Glasgow punks who concoct a flaky thievery scheme . . . involving porcelain sinks. It also has a positive reputation.



The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Breaking In is a fine, clean transfer of a show often described with the word ‘quirky.’  The unfussy cinematography of Michael Coulter (Sense and Sensibility, Four Weddings and a Funeral) matches the film’s impromptu ‘it’s just happening’ feel. Michael Gibbs’ music score is unobtrusive in the same way.

Every commentary with John Sayles is notable and this track doesn’t disappoint. Daniel Kramer hosts Sayles and director Forsyth for a track that delivers something of interest every few seconds. Forsyth is open and candid when discussing how Burt Reynolds was cast, etc.; he says he hadn’t seen the film since it was new, and almost needed more time to reevaluate it. Although Sayles claims to have memory issues regarding old projects he’s a fountain of information. The script began as a short story, and went into circulation for somebody else to direct (Sayles talks about making Matewan around this time).

Without saying it right out, the discussion that Forsyth’s producers didn’t like Breaking In and may have cut some scenes. Sayles mentions some more material with Albert Salmi and Harry Carey Jr., which makes sense considering how little screen time those actors have. Sayles also mentions a missing gag with a bowling ball that rolls down a street, that he’s sure was in a preview cut. Forsyth says producers wanted ‘a more cosmetic version of the street kid,’ which I take to mean that Siemaszko didn’t fit their vision of a trendy, marketable pretty boy.

It sounds as if Norman Lear had something to do with the movie, and his name is attached to at least one other Act III Communications show, as an executive producer. Bill and John lump Sam Goldwyn, Jr. in with Harvey Weinstein, as producers that will re-edit movies after the director is finished, behind his back.

John Sayles asks Forsyth about his films almost as much as Kramer does, keeping the discussion going. The most surprising thing we hear is Sayles’ contention that he once saw a print of the movie Sunset Blvd. on TV, with the legendary original opening in the morgue, the one reportedly discarded before release. That sounds highly unlikely, but Sayles isn’t the kind of director who makes up stories. And weirder things have happened.

Nobody discusses two things I was curious about. The end titles credit Introvision, a visual effects company that specialized in sophisticated Front Projection photography (which I just discussed in a review for Mighty Peking Man). The commentators note a shot of a jet plane passing very low over Mike’s head near Ernie’s house, a shot that sure stands out as some kind of a composite, to exaggerate the size of the airliner. I don’t see how Front Projection would figure in that illusion, but Introvision did other kinds of effects work as well.

And finally, Ernie’s stealth crimes in Breaking In just seem impossible today because of ubiquitous surveillance cameras. All those random cameras would seem to be a real buzz killer for Ernie’s schemes, even if the same cameras don’t always nail street criminals and hit & run drivers. Perhaps overworked detectives haven’t the time or motivation to track them down?  When I’m in public in Los Angeles I always assume that my movements could be tracked after the fact, if somebody really put in the effort.

Or is that too much like the argument claiming that 90% of older storylines are now invalid due to the existence of instant communication through cell phones?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Breaking In
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Daniel Kramer, Bill Forsyth and John Sayles; trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
January 13, 2022

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.