William Riley Burnett isn’t quite as well known as other crime writers like Hammett and Chandler, but the titles of several W. R. Burnett novels and films everybody knows. His career and his influence stretched from gangster novels and movies, which he went a long way to defining, through noir to blaxploitation and beyond.
According to Burnett, a good place to begin his story is in a fleabag in Chicago, when he was a twenty-seven-year-old hayseed from Ohio who in six years had written some one hundred stories and five novels, not one of them published. On his first night in the big city, sleeping in that cheap hotel, he was jolted out of bed by a series of explosions across the street. Rival gangsters had been arguing over the rake in the parking garage across the street. Things got heated and they started throwing hand grenades — “pineapples,” folks called them then. That was Chicago in 1928. “Capone was King,” Burnett later wrote. “Corruption was rampant… Gangsters were shooting each other all over town; in fact, I ‘heard’ one killing over the radio. It happened in a cafe while a dance-band broadcast was in progress. Two shots came over distinctly, the music slurred to an abrupt stop, then the air went dead.”
Intrigued, Burnett started hanging out with cops and hoods, taking notes, and ended up writing a gangster novel he originally titled The Furies. The first New York publisher he sent it to rejected it. He gave it a new title and sent it off again. In 1929 it was published as Little Caesar.
Along with Hammett, whose Red Harvest had come out six months earlier, Burnett was fashioning a new class of crime novel as literate pulp, just as the syndicates were emerging and the Depression was about to redraw the entire social landscape. The writing is very spare in a Hemingwayish way, yet vividly descriptive when it needs to be. His characters have names like Scabby and Limpy John and Killer Pepi, and they speak a Chicago gangster patois he’d heard on the streets, full of hard guys pumping lead out of gats and rods, new to most readers at the time but soon universally recognized. They’re vain to the point of girlishness, constantly fussing with their hair and fawn-colored spats and diamond stick pins. They’re cocky and quick to take offense because they’re so insecure. They’re far more tender, sympathetic and loving with each other than they are with their dames. “I would not shoot Rico if he shot me first,” one says. “Rico is my friend and I love him with a great love.” Rico ends up forfeiting his life because he can’t bring himself to shoot an old pal. As opposed to:
Olga Stassoff was just putting the finishing touches to her make-up. Joe came in softly and stood watching her. She began to sing.
"If you’re singing for me," said Joe, "you can stop any time."
Olga turned around.
"Well, what are you doing here? Broke?"
"Shut up," said Joe.
Then he turned and walked out of the room.
Scholars have made much of the homoerotic subtext in all this, but then scholars can see homoerotic subtext in a stick of gum. Probably what Burnett was really picking up on was the peculiarities of Mediterranean masculinity as expressed in the largely Italian milieu of the late-1920s Chicago gangster. Film historian Thomas Doherty points out that “foreign” gangsters — Italians, Jews — were still pretty mysterious to a lot of Americans; through the 1920s they’d heard more about all-American outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. The rise of organized crime syndicates — whom Burnett much later called “just businessmen who don’t abide by the rules” — was also news to many Americans at the time.
Little Caesar was an instant hit. So of course was the film adaptation. The movie was a huge box office success at a time when the Depression was cutting attendance figures by half, and it made Edward G. Robinson a star. It’s not nearly as tough or brisk as the book, though Robinson is great in it. Both the book and the movie had their share of critics who expressed outrage that Burnett seemed to be sympathizing with and “humanizing” his hoodlum characters.
Hollywood called and Burnett answered. For the next forty years he’d be there, writing both novels and films, many of them successful, a few of them classics.
There was The Beast of the City in 1932, with Walter Huston as an unscrupulously tough crime-busting cop who’d later be seen as a pre-echo of Dirty Harry. Howard Hughes called on Burnett to make some sense of more than a dozen draft screenplays for Scarface, based on the Armitage Trail novel published around the same time as Little Caesar. Burnett compiled the best scenes into a master draft, then Ben Hecht applied the polish. The result was the last of the great pre-Code gangster films, a movie much harder and more raw than Little Caesar.
Butnett’s oddball 1935 comedy The Whole Town’s Talking is a kind of meta-crime story, with Edward G. Robinson brilliantly playing two roles, sometimes in split-screen, as a meek bank clerk who’s identical to a vicious killer. Jean Arthur’s great in her snappy role too, but then isn’t she always. Burnett’s prizefighter novel Iron Man was made into three films, Iron Man in 1931, Some Blondes Are Dangerous in 1937, and Iron Man again in 1951. His novella Dr. Socrates, about the clash of a small-town doctor and a hoodlum on the lam, was first serialized in Collier’s, then made into the 1935 film of the same name. It starred the great Paul Muni and Ann Dvorak, who’d been paired a few years earlier as the possibly incestuous Tony and Cesca Camonte in Scarface. It was remade in 1939 as the Bogart vehicle King of the Underworld.
By his 1940 novel High Sierra, both Burnett’s writing and his tough guys had fully matured. His style is more relaxed, still handsomely descriptive but with more psychological depth. Roy Earle in the book is more broken and melancholy than the Dillinger-inspired outlaw Bogart plays in the film, more jittery and uncomfortable in the world after years in stir. He’s not thoroughly a bad man, more of a bad-luck stray like the dog Pard. He’s weary and lonesome and sick, showing his age in his inability to control either his flashes of snarling violence or his fits of nostalgic longing. The newspapers call him Mad Dog but Old Dog would be more fitting. His affair with Marie, the only other character as tough and savvy as he is, would be totally mysterious to the hard guys in Little Caesar.
The film adaptation came out in 1941, directed by Raoul Walsh, with a screenplay by Burnett and John Huston that’s pretty faithful to the book, though they made the necessary Hollywood concessions. In the novel, Velma’s not the innocent little hick she is in the film — she’s damaged goods in more ways than the clubfoot — and it’s explicit that Marie starts out “just a lay,” as Roy tells her, then worms her way into his heart just like Pard does. Burnett and Huston tacked on the movie’s big melodramatic climax as well. In the book Roy makes sure Marie and Pard are well out of harm’s way, then dies alone up in the mountains, shot by a gunman he never sees, taking his bullet quietly, almost wistfully. It probably wouldn’t have made good cinema but it’s a more fitting end for him. This movie would also get remade twice, as a Western in the 1949 Colorado Territory and then as the grimy 1955 I Died a Thousand Times, with Jack Palance as Earle and Shelley Winters doing the Ida Lupino role.
Having helped to invent the modern gangster novel and picture, Burnett wrote some of the darkest, hardest, and ethically murkiest postwar noir, creating a world where it’s nearly impossible to tell the good guys from the bad ones because most everybody’s tainted or bent in some way. In the 1946 Nobody Lives Forever, John Garfield is both a war hero and a con man. When he comes home from the warfront, like a lot of other vets he tries to pick up his old life, only to find everything’s changed while he was gone. It’s sort of The Best Years of Our Lives for hoodlums.
In The Asphalt Jungle, published in 1949, the world’s gone so dirty and upside down that the supposedly upstanding citizens are actually worse than the bad guys. The cop and the lawyer are more crooked and sleazy than the hoods who pull the heist, and some of them are plenty sleazy. Like Roy Earle, Dix Handley is a throwback, a farmboy operating by a kind of Old West outlaw code of honor he probably read as a kid in pulp magazines. He’s pulled down by lowlifes who are thoroughly modern and urban, and as innocent of ethics as rats in an alley. Huston made the film the following year. It reappeared as the forgotten 1963 George Sanders movie Cairo and again in 1972 as the blaxploitation flick Cool Breeze. A tv crime series called The Asphalt Jungle ran for one season in 1961.
Burnett also co-wrote the screenplay for This Gun for Hire, adapted from the Graham Greene novel. He adapted the Eric Ambler spy novel Background to Danger, worked on the anti-syndicate potboiler The Racket and on several Westerns and wartime pictures.
He was still at it in the 1960s, still writing crime novels like The Cool Man, published in 1968. At a time when other pulp writers were cranking out endless knockoffs of James Bond or trying to get with the hippies and drugs, Burnett stuck with what he knew best. Like High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle it’s about a big heist gone wrong, leaving some of the crooks dead and the rest spatting over the spoils. Now almost all his hard guys are anachronisms, noir characters who’ve survived into the Swingin’ Sixties by wits, guile or just brute force. They’re at the opposite end of life from the cocky young narcissists in Little Caesar, old guys moving deliberately down crooked paths they know by rote, pursuing their agendas — money, revenge, self-preservation, sex — by instinct now. When fate throws them curves they take it, like Roy Earle would have, with a resigned shrug. By the end of the book all their machinations have just sort of petered out; a few of them are dead and the rest are stranded like sharks out of water. You have to wonder if Burnett was feeling a bit like that himself by this point.
Burnett also co-wrote the screenplay for The Great Escape with James Clavell, his last Hollywood coup. He did some uncredited work on Ice Station Zebra, and wrote episodes for several tv series, including Naked City, The Untouchables and, of course, The Asphalt Jungle, as well as a lot of Westerns. His eyesight failing, he didn’t write so much in the 1970s. But he was still able to bring his whole career full circle with his last book, Goodbye, Chicago, set in 1928, the year he got there. It was published in 1981 and he died the next year.
by John Strausbaugh