RARA-AVIS: Remembering W.R. Burnett

From: southpaw@altavista.net
Date: 30 Jun 2000

< http://www.filmunlimited.co.uk/Feature_Story/feature_story/0,4120,33525 1,00.html>

'You're born, you're gonna have trouble, you're gonna die' Maxim Jakubowski on hardboiled novelist WR Burnett, author of The Asphalt Jungle Friday June 23, 2000 The Guardian, London

His career as a writer spanned over six decades and he is responsible for some of the all-time classic crime novels and a handful of cult movies; but when he died in 1982 at the age of 83, his mantelpiece carried no Oscar, no American Film Institute life achievement award, and most of his books were out of print in America.

Such is the fate of journeyman writers who worked in the Hollywood shadows. But the books and the films survive - and what a career it was. If the name of William Riley Burnett is unfamiliar, the titles of his books and many of the ensuing films are not: Little Caesar, Scarface, High Sierra, Yellow Sky, Dark Hazard, The Asphalt Jungle, Nobody Lives Forever, Four for Texas, The Great Escape.

These are but a handful among the 36 published novels and 60 screenwriting credits for which he was responsible; add the countless magazine stories, short stories, plays and even over a 100 songs, and his contribution to 20th-century popular culture can no longer be denied.

Fully half of his books, and the movies adapted by him or others from them, deal with criminals and the underworld, and that alone affords him a pedestal equal to Chandler and Hammett, whose Hollywood careers were nowhere near matching his. Twenty-nine movies are based on his novels and stories, some remade several times, and he moved with effortless comfort between genres, adapting easily to the idiosyncrasies of westerns, war tales, dog racing or whatever subject Warner Bros had lined up for him.

Always the consummate professional, he worked with great directors (from Tod Browning to Howard Hawks); he was discreet, effective, pragmatic and at the service of a story well told. In this respect, Burnett epitomises the legion of craftsmen who created the Golden Age of Hollywood.

He was born in 1899 in Springfield, Ohio, of Welsh-Irish ancestry. His was a family of political bosses; his grandfather had been mayor of Columbus and his father was the governor's right-hand man. His acute understanding of politics and the compromises between power and ambition would surface in many of his books and screenplays. He studied journalism and, following his marriage, became a statistician for the state of Ohio, where he took his first steps in a literary career.

Burnett moved to Chicago in 1927 and worked as a desk clerk in the Northmere Hotel, which helped him absorb the atmosphere of the big city and observe at first-hand its varied characters. Much of this invisible research found its way into his first novel, Little Caesar (1929).

Burnett had arrived in Chicago at the height of Al Capone's dominance over the city and was among the first at the scene of the St Valentine's Day Massacre (although he refused to view the bloody aftermath). In the story of Cesare Bandello, the punk who rises to mob chieftain, Burnett perfectly captured the typical crook of the Prohibition era and the slangy, heavily-dialogue-dependent style he adopted soon caught the attention of Hollywood following the book's runaway success. His writing career was launched.

Burnett would, in later interviews, claim that Jack Warner bought the book not for its literary merits but because the main character hailed from Youngstown, Ohio, as did the brothers Warner. At any rate, the film version was a major hit and made a star of Edward G Robinson.

Burnett followed his novel to Hollywood and never left. For most of the 30s, Burnett allowed his occasional screen writing to subsidise his novels, preferring to cede rights to his stories and allowing others to adapt them. One notable exception was Howard Hawks's adaptation of the novel Scarface. Producer Howard Hughes had already used a dozen writers on the project and despaired of finding the right tone when he called on the author of Little Caesar and offered him $2000 a week.

It was good timing. Too many bad choices at the track had left Burnett broke. Although Ben Hecht wrote the final version of the script in 10 days, the groundwork had already been done by Burnett, who shared a credit. He would work a few more times for the legendary Hughes in the 50s, always brought in for last minute panic rewrites on problem movies for RKO and enjoyed an interesting relationship with the reclusive millionaire and producer.

Burnett's 1930 political western novel Saint Johnson is one of the first tellings of the legend of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the shootout at the OK Corral, a strong, fully authentic tale of the old west that was to become a Hollywood staple and was first adapted for the screen in 1932 as Law and Order.

Dark Hazard, a tale of political chicanery, was filmed twice in the 30s, as was Iron Man. But it was only after the publication of his crime novel High Sierra (1940) that Burnett became more active in screenwriting - at the behest of John Huston, who described Burnett as
"one of the most neglected American writers."

The assignment to adapt his own novel vaulted Burnett into the top ranks of Hollywood's screenwriters. The combination of Burnett, Huston, the gutsy no-frills direction of veteran Raoul Walsh and Humphrey Bogart created an instant noir classic.

Bogart's character, Roy Earle, was partly inspired by John Dillinger, and the resultant film broke so many conventions of the gangster genre that the production code office sent Jack Warner a list of 43 objections to the script.

Burnett would adapt the book again in 1955 as a vehicle for Jack Palance. The film writing assignments blossomed thereafter, with Burnett turning out original screen stories and using his increasing supply of novels as perfect source material. He also collaborated with the likes of Albert Maltz and John Howard Lawson, where his more rightwing political stance tempered their pre-HUAC-purges idealism.

In 1950, his novel The Asphalt Jungle, the first in a trilogy about the corruption of a city (the other novels were Little Men, Big World and Vanity Row) was picked up by MGM's Dore Schary who wanted to do a movie with "shooting and fucking", according to Burnett. The novel was an innovative caper story in which the statutory criminal genius is replaced by a consortium of crooks who work as a team to pull off a complicated plan. Both the book and the film have weathered well.

In his 1950s work, Burnett was at the height of his powers, continuing to mine a dark, realistic vein of American naturalism, about characters living outside the mainstream, outlaws for whom he professed a continuing fascination: "A writer has to have an imagination - that's what makes a writer. He has to be able to put himself imaginatively in the position of whatever character he selects. And I have a very good grip on reality, which I inherited from my father, so I pretty much know the limitations of humanity and the possibilities in life, which aren't very great for anybody. You're born, you're gonna have trouble, and you're gonna die. That you know. There's not much else you know."

Of such innate pessimism are great stories born. His final major screen writing job was on John Sturges' The Great Escape, in which Steve McQueen portrayed a last variation on the classic Burnett anti-hero: an imprisoned man for whom there is no escape - only a ball bounced endlessly against the wall of a cell. Not for him the spectacular deaths of Little Caesar's Rico or High Sierra's Roy Earle.

Burnett's literary swan song was, appropriately, Goodbye Chicago (1981), written at the age of 82. It is a novel set in the 30s in the milieu of Burnett's greatest successes, and concerns the investigation of the murder of a policeman's wife. The search produces an exposure of city corruption as well as an apocalyptic gang war. Surprisingly, it has never been filmed. Just a year earlier he had been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. In Hollywood, despite his wealth of credits, he never won any awards although others were the beneficiaries of Oscars for films that would not have existed without him. His obituary was buried on page 12 of Daily Variety. Journeymen get no rewards.

* London's NFT is featuring a WR Burnett season throughout July as part of the Crime Scene 2000 festival. Details: 020 7928 3232.

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