In the Key of Noir - Movie Review Essay: I Walk Alone (1947)

In the Key of Noir
by Jen Johans

To hear Lizabeth Scott's jaded torch singer Kay Lawrence tell it in I Walk Alone, "all the songs sound alike these days." And with their good and evil tales of antiheroes, bad decisions, and femme fatales that together create an instantly recognizable cinematic melody, Kay might just as well have been talking about the film noir genre where the tropes had been established a decade earlier in their nearest relative — '30s crime pictures.

Most evident in standard cops and robbers fare or gangster epics like Scarface, the moral quandaries of right and wrong permeated through the era's socially conscious films as well, including the union centered Warner Bros. crime melodrama Black Fury, which Walk director Byron Haskin had lensed for Michael Curtiz back in 1935.

An existential B movie noir, I Walk Alone knows the rules of the genre well and embraces them with as much matter-of-fact resignation as recent parolee Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster) does when he sees vertical shadows on the ground and informs his friend, "bars, Dave, I guess I'll never get away from 'em." Yet while Frankie observes this with a hint of despair onscreen, Haskin appears to have taken the bars of noir as a challenge to stage a great escape offscreen.

Understanding the standard notes of noir that must be played, in the 1947 production, he opts for a different arrangement and fills his chorus with character actors like Scott, Lancaster, and a knockout Kirk Douglas, all of whom did some of their best work in the genre. And once they start singing the wry, lyrical dialogue penned by Red River scribe Charles Schnee, I Walk Alone sounds like a dream.

It looks like one too, thanks to the contribution of the great cinematographer Leo Tover who painted the lush Hold Back the Dawn and The Heiress with light during the exact same decade that he let the shadows and fog take hold here. Most importantly, as not only a former cinematographer but an award winning Warner Bros. special effects wizard who'd developed a rear-projection photography system that helped advance the medium and also worked on such landmark films as They Drive By Night, and Arsenic and Old Lace, Toller had a vital ally in Haskin.

Together, the two men knew how to make Walk's symbolic and sumptuous visuals count. The end result is a sexy, grown-up noir that shocked critics like Bosley Crowther of The New York Times who thought it violated the Hays Code and The Nation's James Agee who dubbed it "unclean, unclean" upon its post-World War II release.

In I Walk Alone, Lizabeth Scott's Kay Lawrence isn't the only one who's jaded. Long before we encounter the torch singer who feels she's "sung too many torch songs," the picture finds Lancaster's Frankie out after a fourteen year stretch that's changed the man so much that he believes that he can now smell fear. Desperate and angry, with Frankie hoping to get what's coming to him from his old partner Noll "Dink" Turner (Douglas) even though we know right away that it's hopeless, Haskin's movie feels like it would play perfectly as one half of a double bill with Straight Time, Dog Day Afternoon, or any number of other dead-end neo-noirs of the 1970s.

However, featuring an over-the-top final moment with Douglas (for which the actor has taken full credit), unlike those two films, I Walk Alone is saddled with an ending that feels out of step with the rest of the picture. And while it dulls some of its hard edges with the type of misguided musical moments that were common in the genre — as well as an all in one night, largely one set approach that makes you question Lancaster's character swings and the film's logistics — overall, this noir works far too well for it to be so forgotten.

A mature effort, Walk was based upon the play Beggars are Coming to Town by Theodore Reeves. As stylistic as it is natural, even in a few instantly quotable, lusty double entendres from scene stealer Kristine Miller, Schnee's script is filled with surprisingly wistful, half optimistic, half pessimistic sentiments ideally suited to characters in their thirties who've been around the block a few times. Unafraid of complex conversations that, just like in unrehearsed real life, spiral off in any number of directions over a period of minutes, in I Walk Alone, two long, talky sequences stand out.

Dropping lines that still feel fresh today, in a drawn-out dinner date between Scott and Lancaster, she suddenly confesses, "I've never been out with a man who didn't keep talking about himself and end up thinking he knew all about me," before marveling that tonight — opposite the chiseled, silent as a vault ex-con who can smell fear — the opposite is true.

And this recurring theme of expecting the unexpected when it comes to the man who just can't escape the bars of his past continues on in a heartbreaking hold-up sequence where Frankie learns the hard way just how much the world has changed in fourteen years. Discovering that he can't use a gun to rob a bureaucracy or board of directors in a scene with Kirk Douglas that Douglas plays with so much amused venom that you half expect poison to drip from your TV, I Walk Alone proves it's far more sophisticated than one might expect.

Though still not as fun or frisky as the director's Lizabeth Scott led follow up, Too Late for Tears, this film, which I hadn't seen in decades, hits much harder as an adult when you're closer in age to the characters onscreen. A towering figure if there ever was one, with his masculine, musically clipped cadence and unflappable charisma, Lancaster easily draws you into the film's conflict so that you're on his side before he even crosses those shadowy bars in the very first sequence.

However, intriguingly going against those expectations, in the first of seven films Lancaster would make opposite Douglas and the first and only one where he received second billing, it's Douglas as the handsome shark — leaning back in his chair like the chairman of the board — who really gets under our skin.

Lounging like a playboy in his robe or running his hand through his hair as though he could shake Lancaster right out of it, the ease with which Douglas tells his worried henchmen that he can handle his old friend foreshadows his '50s climb to the A-list with star turns in films like The Bad and the Beautiful, and 2 Weeks in Another Town (also written by Schnee).

Likewise when, as Scott sings, Walk makes "a fool out of someone who cares" as Lancaster temporarily allows himself to be handled, the coolly calculating Douglas helps propel the film forward until our leading man changes his mind. Of course, then, having stared Douglas down every time he unleashes that deadly smile, we're eager as ever to walk along with Lancaster's fool so that he won't have to go it alone, regardless of the rushed ending and a few minor bumps along the way.

An existential melodrama sung in the key of noir, the harmonious I Walk Alone teaches us that, even if the song sounds the same, with this cast and crew fiddling with the arrangement, it'd be foolish not to care.

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