One of a number of Paramount noirs seemingly forever MIA on disc, Hal Wallis’ show reunites Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott with promising newcomers Kirk Douglas and Wendell Corey. It’s light on action but strong on character — and it contains a key scene in the development of both the noir style and the gangster genre.
I Walk Alone
KL Studio Classics
1947 / B&W / flat Academy / 97 min. / Street Date July 24, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, Wendell Corey, Kristine Miller, George Rigaud, Marc Lawrence, Mike Mazurki, Mickey Knox, Gino Corrado.
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Film Editor: Arthur Schmidt
Original Music: Victor Young
Written by Charles Schnee, Robert Smith, John Bright from a play by Theodore Reeves
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Directed by Byron Haskin
One reason we keep going to theatrical Noir festivals is that a substantial number of interesting classic-era features still haven’t surfaced on disc. Paramount has been slow with their digital noir rollout, perhaps because the noir heyday straddles the cut-off line of the sale of the Paramount library to MCA. The titles The Accused and Night Has a Thousand Eyes come to mind, but also 1947’s I Walk Alone, a show with big star power but a modest production. First-time director Byron Haskin had been filming special effects and directing second unit since the silent days, so was no stranger to a movie set. Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott were established as stars barely a year into their careers, while Kirk Douglas and Wendell Corey were ‘coming along nicely’ as Hal Wallis contractees. Lancaster, Scott and Corey had just been in Wallis’ Desert Fury. Until the late 1970s these films were in constant rotation in TV syndication, but they haven’t been seen in quite a while.
Ace screenwriter Charles Schnee simplifies the stage play source of I Walk Alone into a rather sideways critique of postwar American business realities. The center of the story is a six-minute discussion of the financial structure of a corporation that owns a night club! It’s 1947, and out of prison comes Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster), a prohibition-era bootlegger who completed his full fourteen years in stir. Back in the day Frankie took the fall for his 50-50 partner Noll ‘Dink’ Turner (Kirk Douglas), who went on to found a popular nightclub. Now Frankie wants his promised fifty percent, and can tell that he’s being double-crossed from the start. Old buddy Dave (Wendell Corey) is now Dink’s bookkeeper-lackey. He seems completely defeated, and even turned down a percentage stake in the club so as not to come between Dink and money. Now a refined playboy wooing both society divorcee Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) and the club’s pianist-singer Kay Lawrence (Lizabeth Scott), Dink has no intention of keeping Frankie as a partner. Frustrated by Dink and Dave’s explanation that, in the overlapping corporate ownership of the club, there’s nothing that can be ‘divided’ for him, Frankie turns to one of his old cronies in crime, Nick Palestro (Marc Lawrence) to straighten things out the old way: he’ll simply muscle in on the club and take over.
Thirties gangland meets the air-tight corporate corruption of film noir — Frankie Madison has been gone only fourteen years but he might as well be an artifact from the Middle Ages. He and Dink were once tough guys who hijacked trucks and ran from the law, but Dink now wears tailored shirts and luxuriates like a millionaire in his plush office, letting fussy French chefs and an equally suave manager (George Rigaud of They Came to Rob Las Vegas) run things. Dink has two women on his string. He gets set to wed the caustic heiress while callously using the sweet entertainer to pry secrets from his old partner Frankie. Of course Kay falls in love with Frankie.
The show has a gangland showdown and a shooting fatality, and leans heavy on romantic scenes, with Liz Scott’s Kay being open and supportive to our Rip Van Winkle ex-bootlegger. But it’s also a key noir of the time, a non-subversive critique of modern business. A couple of years later, Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil would insist that business America was as corrupt as a mob racket, that Capitalism is itself evil. I Walk Alone simply says that hoods that once stole liquor now sell it in fancy financial constructs that insure that they pay no taxes.
The key scene is still a stunner; in 1947 its revelations must have been news to the average wage earner that believes in American fair play. Wendell Corey’s demoralized accountant Dave, over Frankie’s frustrated protests, explains that although Dink runs everything and orders people about like a feudal prince, he owns nothing that can be shared with his old partner. Different corporations run different parts of the business; each has a board of directors that ensure nobody can figure out who owns what. Dink runs the show but has no personal accountability for anything. It’s a law-proof paper empire more profitable than any racket from the Capone days.
This is only Burt Lancaster’s fourth picture and maybe the first in which he keeps his shirt on through the whole movie. Burt was something of a sex symbol at the start and his first screen image was of a muscular guy in a sweaty undershirt. Even the avant-garde world picked up on this, when the 1948 experimental film The Uncomfortable Man added a homosexual spin to a story of a 42nd Street drifter, by having him hang out next to a giant theatrical standee of a sweaty Lancaster in Brute Force. Lancaster’s acting skills here are still a work in progress — in more than one scene Frankie Madison just stands with an unchanging dumb look on his face, while the other players emote around him. Lancaster’s other early directors may have protected him a little better: John Huston, Jules Dassin, Lewis Allen.
Some fans see Lizabeth Scott as a liability but I don’t think she ever let a film down. Her distinctive looks and voice are perfect for these stylized noir dramas. In Haskin’s Too Late for Tears she plays a perhaps too fatale of a femme to play, but she’s sensationally sensitive in André de Toth’s Pitfall just the next year. This part is just regulation girlfriend material. Her Kay gravitates from the slimeball Dink to the dumb but faithful hunk Frankie, while singing songs on the side. Producer Hal Wallis made certain to tag all commercial bases.
In his own fourth film Kirk Douglas shows his full colors as a two-faced creep — his Dink Turner has even more superficial slime charm than his Whit Sterling in Jacques Tourneur’s superlative Out of the Past. Dink bullies his French assistant and smooth-talks both of his girlfriends. He won’t deal with Frankie until he can be sure that he holds all the cards. A ‘Winner’ who ‘Believes in Strength,’ Dink is a thoroughly hissable villain, the kind of business cheat who appeals to a foe’s honesty, and then snickers as his victim leaves the room.
The unheralded star of I Walk Alone is the under-appreciated but excellent Wendell Corey, an actor applauded for his part in Rear Window but slighted for bringing insufficient heat to his Hal Wallis noirs, especially The File on Thelma Jordon. Corey’s defeated bookkeeper fully expresses the noir worldview — Dave has long ago made a compromise with corruption and contented himself with a safe, demeaning job cooking two sets of books for Dink Turner. Dave allows himself to be ordered about like a servant, and most of his exchanges with Frankie are pitiful admissions of impotence. His rebellion is the film’s turning point but also the biggest plot weakness — rather than just whistle-blowing the whole setup, Dave rather lamely announces his intentions to Dink, hanging a ‘shoot me’ sign on his own back.
The gorgeous, expressive Kristine Miller is as spoiled-unpleasant here as she is sweet and vulnerable in Haskin’s Too Late for Tears. It’s a great showcase role but Wallis apparently dumped Miller after a third noir appearance. Like so many noir hopefuls, she spent most of her career in TV yet will always be visible in her support role in From Here to Eternity.
Mike Mazurki was probably cast because he was the only decent actor who could credibly take out Burt Lancaster in a hammer lock. In the other character bits, Frankie’s abortive new ‘gang’ smartly evokes the earlier generation of gangster epics. Pock-marked Marc Lawrence looks anything but dependable, and sure enough, his hood retreats to his lousy used car business. The other three gang members are real losers, with the great Mickey Knox making a sharp impression as a thug eager to earn quick cash with his gun. This is of course the same Mickey Knox that, when blacklisted, restarted his career in Rome and worked with Sergio Leone. Learn from Mickey, kids, go to junior college and acquire a foreign language.
Paramount likely saw I Walk Alone as a no-risk inexpensive star vehicle. It’s fairly obscure now, whereas back in the early 1970s it was often quoted in genre studies of the gangster film. One couldn’t read an essay about the the generic roots of The Godfather without a politically- minded critic lauding Haskin’s show as a radical warning about corporate tyranny. The show is by no means radical, but its speech about tricky corporate accounting (for a lousy nightclub!) does plant a germ in the brain: something’s not right in this blessed land of high profits and No Sharing with Nobody, not Nohow.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of I Walk Alone is a good encoding of this smooth Paramount star showcase from the year when Hollywood learned that the Golden Years were fading fast. There’s some dirt here and there, and a few sequences are a bit hazy, but overall Leo Tover’s regulation low-key noir lighting looks just fine.
Victor Young’s music score is quite good until the dramatic scenes, when it appears to try too hard — the hyped romance & jeopardy music is a bit strong for the mostly passive visuals. The ‘big’ music somehow makes some of the film seem small.
Troy Howarth injects humor into his audio commentary coverage; with all those stars and the busy Hal Wallis involved, it should have been a cinch to research juicy anecdotal tidbits on this show. In his autobio, even director Byron Haskin has a lot to say. Never the one to toot his own horn, Haskin notably opined that he was allowed to direct all those name actors because they were too inexperienced to realize that he’d never officially helmed a feature before.
A stack of trailers graces the extras menu page as well.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I Walk Alone
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good – Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Troy Howarth, trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 16, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson