“Don’t worry about me, kid. I just got outta prison, not college.”
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas are a unique duo in film history. They aren’t comically inclined, like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, nor do they showcase the chummy camaraderie that made Paul Newman and Robert Redford such a likable pair. Their collaborations were terse, gritty, and barring the goofy swan song Tough Guys (1986), they rarely saw eye to eye. The magic of Lancaster and Douglas lied in the tension. They never quite seemed at ease with one another, and we could never take our eyes off them as a result.
Lancaster and Douglas got their start in the film noir of the late 40s. Both hit home runs in their screen debuts, and established the personas they would go on to perfect over the next several decades. The former, debuting in The Killers (1946), was a chiseled sap, a man whose chivalry and decency proved his undoing. The latter, debuting in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (also 1946), was a shyster, a sleaze who would cross anyone he needed to in order to get ahead. They were the perfect yin and yang, which Paramount producer Hal B. Wallis took note of when he was casting the 1947 release, I Walk Alone.
Contrary to the film’s title, I Walk Alone thrives on the chemistry between its stars. It’s a rare case of a star-studded cast in which none of the stars have yet broken out, and the result is a killer, often overlooked noir that kicks off the Lancaster-Douglas mythos.
The premise is simple as it is effective: Frankie Madison (Lancaster) and Noll “Dink” Turner (Douglas) are bootleggers during Prohibition. They get into a shootout with potential hijackers and the two men are forced to split up when police arrive on the scene. Frankie gets caught and sentenced to 14 years of prison, while Noll is free to build a bootlegging empire. The former gets out and looks up his old pal, expecting a cut of the profits, but Noll makes it abundantly clear that he doesn’t owe him squat. Neither man is willing to budge, and war is effectively declared.
It’s clear from the jump that Lancaster and Douglas are dynamite together. Their approaches to characterization are radically different: Lancaster is the tortured soul fighting his bad tendencies, while Douglas is the louse who has to fight off fleeting moments of decency. They’re essentially a venn diagram of morality, which makes the overlap in the center all the more compelling. It’s generally easy to determine who will win in a given standoff, even if both sides are played by stars, but the actors bring such conviction to Frankie and Noll that the viewer is genuinely unsure of where things will go.
The supporting cast isn’t too shabby either. Lizabeth Scott plays Kay Lawrence, the nightclub singer who dates Noll and gradually falls for Frankie. It’s not a groundbreaking part, but Scott is in her element, bringing the same weary seduction that she provided in Martha Ivers and Dead Reckoning (1947). A lesser actress would have made the Kay scenes feel like filler between the meat of the plot, but Scott’s chemistry with both men ensure that they’re just as compelling.
Wendell Corey also delivers the goods in what turns out to be a crucial part. He’s Noll’s bookmaker, Dave, and while he’s spent the last decade and a half turning a blind eye, his reunion with Frankie reignites his sense of decency. He’s the character who’s most aware of the crimes that have gone on, and Corey manages to communicate said conflict through his subtly manic mannerisms. Few actors were better at being externally calm while being internally conflicted. He’d made his debut alongside Lancaster and Scott the year prior, in the supremely bizarre Desert Fury (1947), and the Dave character proved he was no flash in the pan.
Byron Haskin was a journeyman filmmaker whose biggest credits were as the special effects artist for household names like John Ford and Raoul Walsh. He never reached the A-list, but as evidenced by this film and Too Late for Tears (1949), he could snap off a taut film noir with the best of them. There’s no fat on the bone here, given the 97-minute runtime, and Haskin avoids the narrative detours that would (and did) sink other noir releases of the era.
I Walk Alone is not a flawless release, and Lancaster and Douglas would go on to have more notable collaborations, but it’s criminally underrated in terms of giving fans what they want. It’s a perfect encapsulation of what made both actors so appealing at the start of their careers, and better yet, it gives them a chance to showcase their talents alongside one another. It’s no classic, but it’s a cult film ripe for rediscovery.
TRIVIA: Lux Radio Theater aired an hour-long adaptation of I Walk Alone in 1948. Lancaster and Scott reprised their roles.
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.