Sunday, July 8, 2012

Overlooked Gems #38: I Walk Alone

Grade: 75 (B+)

Every genre has a golden age. For the western, it was the 1950s. For horror movies, it was the 1970s and 1980s. For film noir and the gangster movie, it ran from the 1930s and 1940s. But while each golden age has a wealth of films canonized as a classic, there stands to be an overlooked gem here or there for every era. Case in point: 1948’s I Walk Alone, a gangster film that’s likely best known as the first collaboration between actors Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Directed by Byron Haskin of 1953’s War of the Worlds fame, the film has been forgotten by many. But there are a handful of cineastes, most notably Martin Scorsese, who have praised I Walk Alone as an underrated and important film in the gangster genre. It’s time it gets another look.

Former gangster Frankie (Lancaster) has just been released back into society after 14 years in the federal penitentiary. Frankie is bitter towards his old partner “Dink” Powell (Douglas), who became a major figure in organized crime after Frankie took the dive for a crime and never visited Frankie in prison. Now Frankie wants what’s owed to him: half of Dink’s earnings. But times have changed, and Dink doesn’t think he owes Frankie much of anything. To complicate matters, Dink sends his singer girlfriend Kay (Lizbeth Scott) to woo and find out what Frankie’s planning, but she falls for Frankie as she’s shunned by Dink.

I Walk Alone is far from a perfect film. The romance between Frankie and Kay connects because of the stars’ charisma (and, it must be said, stunning good looks), but their relationship in the script feels a little contrived. Douglas is fine as Dink, but even though he’s only a year away from his Oscar-nominated breakthrough in Champion, he feels a bit too polished and stiff at times. Part of this can be attributed to Haskin, a former special effects specialist (notably on Raoul Walsh’s excellent gangster film High Sierra) whose experience working with actors was still in its infancy. The film is also a bit stagey at times, too obviously based on a play that needed a rewrite on a character level and something to open it up more cinematically.

In spite of its problems, I Walk Alone is a fascinating and often powerful film. Haskin has trouble with some of the actors, but the man knows how to move a camera. His introductions of characters are all memorable (Scott’s in particular), he makes great use of shadows as a storytelling device (Lancaster stepping off a train and seeing prison bars in the shadows, a spectacular footchase), and he keeps things briskly paced and pulpy even when the script threatens to get too talky. His framing of the two central characters, meanwhile, highlights what I Walk Alone truly represents- the changing of hands from the gangsters of old (Lancaster, frequently shown gritting his teeth in close ups that highlight his primal anger) and the new breed (Douglas, who does most of his work behind a desk, with a pen).

A lot of credit goes to Lancaster’s tightly coiled performance- whether he’s dealing with the husky-voiced beauty Scott or his cruel ex-partner, he’s always on the edge from having been in prison so long. He’s a man out of time- I Walk Alone perfectly highlights the shift in the gangster film from reckless outcast to cold and calculating businessman. Lancaster is very much a gangster in the fashion of James Cagney in The Public Enemy or Paul Muni in Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, whereas Douglas is a proto-Corleone of The Godfather. The rough and tumble way of the past can’t get things done, and Lancaster learns it the hard way in a great scene where Dink’s accountant tries in vain to explain the corporate fashion in which gangsters work nowadays and why it means he can’t get his money. Middlebrow critic Bosley Crowther knocked I Walk Alone for violating the Hays Code for sympathizing with a convicted criminal, but’s part of the film’s interest. We identify with Lancaster not because he’s a good guy, but because his passion is more relatable than the cold cruelty of the business world.

NOTE: This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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