Burt Lancaster began his remarkable film career in a string of equally remarkable noir films. His breakthrough role in The Killers (1946) was eventually followed in 1948 by a picture entitled I Walk Alone, which costarred Lizabeth Scott and Kirk Douglas, two other actors largely associated with noir in their early years. Although it isn`t as widely discussed as other pictures made by these actors, I Walk Alone is a surprisingly well-made and entertaining picture which deserves a larger audience.
The movie opens as Frankie Madison (Lancaster) comes back to New York after serving a fourteen-year prison term. He is met at the station by his old friend Dave (Wendell Corey), who now works as bookkeeper for their other friend and former business associate Noll (Kirk Douglas). Frankie, who took the rap (to borrow gangster lingo) for a shared bootlegging escapade he and Noll pulled together in Prohibition days, is eager to get his half of the profits Noll has been raking in from his new, successful night club. But Noll is not as concerned with his old pal`s welfare as he should be, reserving his solicitude for his own career; he plans to marry a rich, “sophisticated“ patron of the club (the lovely Kristine Miller, who died recently), despite his ongoing romance with singer Kay (Lizabeth Scott). He`s the kind of man who`s not above using Kay to find out what Frankie wants from his former partner in crime. And, as anybody at all familiar with the genre will guess, things get noirish very quickly thereafter. Mike Mazurki, George Rigaud, and Marc Lawrence add to the fun in small but notable roles.
Perhaps because the film is based on a play (intriguingly entitled Beggars Are Coming to Town, the credits inform us), the script boasts some theatrical but effective touches as well as an almost unbroken flow of sharp, memorable dialogue. A small-time hood briefly employed by Frankie earns his place in minor noir character heaven by managing to be rude to Lancaster (does that takes nerve) and memorably opportunistic when his original plans fall through. Noll`s manipulative ways are given a disturbing reality by his possession of a small-scale model of the nightclub as he hopes to renovate it, complete with tiny figurines of himself, his intended bride, and his current romantic interest (in true noir-villain fashion, the latter two are not the same).
Visually, the film has much of which to be proud; it offers a memorable, often slightly claustrophobic nightclub setting as well as some of the back alleys, boarding-house rooms, and foggy sidewalks that haunt 40s films. And as in all good films, the imagery sometimes reinforces a plot point. As Lancaster walks into the train station at the start of the movie, he stops momentarily at the sight of long bars of shadow cast on the ground by bright sunshine, recalling the prison bars that enclosed him for fourteen years; late in the film, when Noll`s prospects have narrowed considerably (to be as spoiler-free as possible), Douglas walks towards the camera through a network of shadows which are cast by his nightclub decor but subtly echo the film`s earlier moment. And when Dave is trying to call Frankie in a drugstore phone booth, he is photographed from the outside, a man caught in a box, trapped by being exposed to the sight of those looking in (as Frankie was in jail).
The film`s plot progresses well, disposing early on of one possible climax in order to build to a more intriguing one. A widely-versed lover of noir sometimes approaches unseen films with a touch of fear, suspecting that he`ll be able to predict plot turns within seconds of the opening credits; in this case, however, he may be pleasantly surprised by the rather unorthodox development of the story. One of the most fascinating things about the movie, however, and something that may be unique to this film, is its realism or what might be called its historical sense of racketeering. Learned in the ways of early gangsterdom, Frankie gathers a troupe of hoodlums and goes to confront Noll, confident that when faced with superior numbers and the crowning argument formed by a loaded gun, Noll will turn over half of his profits to his erstwhile partner with no further haggling. But, as Noll informs him in a lecture which might form the basis of Gangsterdom 201, times have changed, and now things are done in a bureaucratic way, with corporations and other legal apparatus. In a scene which is painful, humorous, and oddly educational all at the same time, Frankie (and the audience) must grapple with the banal realities of 40s crime as opposed to the free and easy days of Prohibition.
There are a few elements in the film which could have borne slightly more explanation; Kay`s sudden shift of allegiance from Noll to Frankie isn`t too hard to understand, but a bit more information about her background and history might have made her even more sympathetic. More puzzling, however, is the question of what exactly Frankie served time for; early on we`re told it`s murder, but a brief, oddly-placed flashback suggests it`s simply for bootlegging. Furthermore, the casting of Douglas and Lancaster raises the question of age; they`re in their early or mid-thirties here and look younger, which is problematic since it makes the fourteen-year lapse hard to believe. If we go by Lancaster`s actual age in calculating that of his character, Frankie would have been twenty or twenty-one when he went to jail; yet from the plot we gather that he and Noll were quite the big shots in the bootlegging business before Frankie`s unlucky break. Maybe we are just meant to suppose that the two were the Twenties` reigning teen gangster kings, although nothing in the script supports that (but how I wish they`d made that film!). The film`s last few minutes, furthermore, suffer from an unnecessary plot development concerning Noll, although it may have been mandated by the Production Code; as it stands now, it`s just a bit too much excitement and rules out what would have been a more structurally satisfying ending.
Watching this film, one can’t help but be struck by Lancaster’s ability to project at times a vulnerability, almost a weakness, which might be unexpected coming from a man who is as physically invested in his roles as Lancaster always is. From his very first role in The Killers, Lancaster displayed a larger range of talent than some of his critics have been willing to allow. He certainly approaches his roles with an impressive thoroughness; one never gets the impression that he`s saving his energy for after work, so intensely is he present in all his movements and actions. Perhaps this stems from his often-referenced training as an acrobat; if that`s how he got it, then one can only wish that a lot of other actors had trained as acrobats. It`s Lancaster`s dedication to the role, his conviction and energy, which ultimately sells the audience on his character’s sometimes less than logical actions and makes them willing to overlook the age problem; he makes you believe that what Noll calls “sentimentality“ but Kay sees as integrity and hope could survive fourteen years in jail and give a reformed gangster a future as well as a past.