Byron Haskin started out in movies as a cinematographer and a special effects man—working his way up to head of the Special Effects department at Warner Brothers in the mid-forties—but when producer Hal B. Wallis left Warner Brothers in the forties to start his own production company, Haskin followed his old boss and started a directing career (or restart, I should say; Haskin had made a handful of short films back in the silent days). His first film post-Warner was I WALK ALONE. It should have led to much better things.
I WALK ALONE tells the story of Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster), a hood who has just been released from jail after fourteen years. He’s back in town to look up his old partner, Dink Turner (Kirk Douglas), a shifty bastard who has spent the last fourteen years getting rich. Frankie wants his cut of the prosperity, and Dink is loathe to give it to him. Caught between these two raging alpha males are mild-mannered accountant, Dave (Wendell Corey), and sexy nightclub singer, Kay (Lizabeth Scott).
The script is by Charles Schnee, one of the best screenwriters of the era (THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, THE FURIES) from Theodore Reeves’ play “Beggars are Coming to Town”, and it is unusually intelligent and perceptive. One of the interesting angles of the story is the way Frankie finds that he is an anachronism in the new world of crime. Dink is a businessman now, and Frankie’s two-fisted approach is hopelessly outdated. When Frankie hires a bunch of thugs to help him storm into Dink’s office and demand his cut, he discovers that Dink’s empire is really an amalgam of three different corporations. The best Frankie can hope for is eight percent—maybe, even that will depend on a vote by the stockholders.
Lancaster and Douglas, in their first film together, are excellent. Both men are energetic, hypermasculine performers, but what makes their pairing interesting is the different effect each of them creates. Lancaster, even playing a goon, is an honest, sympathetic protagonist. Douglas, on the other hand, is one of the screen’s great bastards. His air of ruthless self-confidence is completely mesmerizing, and somehow his self-satisfaction never gets in the way of his appeal. Here these two actors already play together with the natural chemistry that would sustain their repeated collaborations for decades to come.
Their support, both in front of and behind the camera, is top rate. Wendell Corey, one of the most dependable of supporting actors, finds a nice wounded dignity in his character, and Lizabeth Scott, once again the morally questionable lounge singer (she must have played this role a hundred times in the forties and fifties) is as sad and beautiful as always. The film’s cinematographer is Leo Tover (who had just photographed Scott in DEAD RECKONING the year before) and his work here is evocative, classic noir photography. A sequence late in the film in which Corey is chased down abandoned streets by one of Douglas’ thugs is just about perfect.
If the film has a serious flaw it is that it resolves its story a little too neatly at the end (a common failing among films of the period, of course). Lancaster’s character takes a swerve in the last few minutes that feels false. But this is a minor quibble for a film firing on so many cylinders.
The following year, Haskin would direct Scott in the noir masterpiece, TOO LATE FOR TEARS, followed a few years later by an excellent John Payne picture called THE BOSS. While for most of his career, he focused on adventure stories and science fiction, his brief excursions into crime stories in the forties and fifties are enough to make his name notable in the genre. After you see I WALK ALONE, and after you see TOO LATE FOR TEARS and THE BOSS, you will find yourself wishing Haskin had dabbled in crime pictures a little longer.
PS. I'd only seen this film on the small screen until the showing last night at NOIR CITY CHICAGO, the film noir festival (now in its tenth year!) put on by the Film Noir Foundation and Music Box Theater. If you love film noir, do yourself a favor and make your way to one of the annual NOIR CITY festivals in San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, DC, and more.