Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry) has been released from jail after serving a fourteen-year sentence for bootlegging. Frankie immediately contacts ex-partner Noll Hunter (Kirk Douglas, Lust for Life) and demands payment for services rendered. But Noll, who is now a respected entrepreneur, has no intention of paying old debts.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“For a buck, you’d double-cross your own mother.”
I Walk Alone has earned its place in film history for being the very first production to pair perennial tough guys Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. The actors made seven films together over a forty-year period, and what a great screen team they made!
Loosely based on the stage play The Beggars Are Coming to Town by Theodore Reeves, adapted by writer-producer Charles Schnee (The Bad and the Beautiful), I Walk Alone was produced by Hal B. Wallis (Casablanca). The film was directed by Byron Haskin (The War of the Worlds), his first film as a director in twenty years.
While neither Lancaster nor Douglas liked Schnee’s script (producer Wallis had to force them to do the film), I thought I Walk Alone was very good, and Lancaster and Douglas are perfectly casted as rival gangsters. Douglas is billed below the title, but he has as much screen time as Lancaster. Luckily, the admittedly derivative script creates plenty of opportunities for the two actors to square off against each other.
Lancaster and Douglas had similar backgrounds — they both grew up in tough neighborhoods in New York City — but people who worked with both actors claimed that they were as different as night and day. The actors always looked good together precisely because of their personality differences and dissimilar acting styles.
I have to give director Haskin plenty of credit for exploiting the actors’ differences in a smart way. Lancaster was a big man — 6’2″ and all muscle — and Haskin does everything he can to enhance Lancaster’s burliness and instinct-driven technique. At the same time, Haskin emphasizes Douglas’s more structured approach to acting, which is perfectly suited for the cold, manipulative and urbane villain.
Lancaster and Douglas are surrounded by a dandy supporting cast. Lizabeth Scott (Too Late for Tears) has always been treated badly by film scholars, who often dismiss her as “a poor man’s Lauren Bacall,” but I’ve always liked her. Although Scott plays a noir trope — a woman caught between feuding men — she handles the role with class.
After previously playing a nasty gangster opposite Lancaster and Scott in Desert Fury, Wendell Corey shows his versatility by playing a mild-mannered crook whose job is to “cook the books.” And who doesn’t love the inimitable Mike Mazurki (Murder, My Sweet and Pocketful of Miracles)? Mazurki plays the muscle of Douglas’s criminal enterprise. Marc Lawrence (Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle) is another great character actor that I greatly admire. Lawrence plays a pragmatic hoodlum.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
There’s no point denying it: The film’s ace in the hole is its momentous teaming of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. And frankly, when you are as good as these two actors, you don’t need anything else . Considering its historical significance, I’m not quite sure why I Walk Alone isn’t better known. The fact that this is the first Lancaster-Douglas movie is reason enough to give it a chance. B&W, 103 minutes, Not Rated.