William Ripley Burnett (November 25, 1899 – April 25, 1982) of Springfield, Ohio, didn’t have his first taste of big city life until he left a civil service job at twenty-eight and moved to Chicago to become a writer. Back in Ohio he had written over a hundred short stories and five novels, all unpublished, in imitation of European naturalists. In Chicago he found a job as a night-clerk in a seedy hotel, where he met prize-fighters, hobos and hoodlums. Burnett turned them and their jargon into Little Caesar (1929), a crime novel that was an overnight success and landed him a screen-writing job in Hollywood. Burnett’s prose is disarmingly simple; as Piers Gray notes, “the focus of [his] language – spare, direct, demotic – is brilliantly intense and in its intensity reveals something about writing.” 1
First National Pictures (released by Warner) turned Little Caesar into a classic movie starring an unknown actor named Edward G. Robinson, who as Caesar “Rico” Bandello portrayed a Chicago gangster similar to Al Capone. Burnett continued to write novels, sometimes a book or more a year. Most of these he also turned into moviescripts, some as many as three times. He wrote thirteen other hard-boiled novels, the best known being High Sierra (1941) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Thematically, Burnett amplified the setting of the corrupt town that Hammett had painted in Red Harvest. Crime and decay consume small cities and Middle America. Where Burnett differs from other hard-boiled writers is that he contrasts to this a bucolic world of nature to which his protagonists often try to return. Even as they are drawn inexorably into a criminal plot, they pine for the bluegrass horse-farms of Kentucky or the fishing-hole in Indiana. While this is a very traditional motif of American fiction, Burnett’s foreground plotting emphasized the inexorable reach and power of large organizations, usually the police. Like James M. Cain in Double Indemnity, he created sympathy for his criminal protagonists by depicting them as fated in the net of huge forces. He was able to break down the usual antipathy toward the gangster through the latter’s nostalgia for a lost green paradise.
Burnett’s screenplays alone would qualify him for hard-boiled status. Who can forget Edward G. Robinson’s dying line in Little Caesar : “Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?” He co-wrote Scarface (1932), even more obviously the Capone story, and he wrote the source novel for Dr. Socrates (1935), which was remade as King of the Underworld (1939) and as Bullet Scars (1942). Burnett’s The Asphalt Jungle was also filmed three times: under the original title by John Huston in 1950; as The Badlanders in 1959; and as Cool Breeze in 1972. Bruce Crowther notes that Burnett’s screenplays, “while still ostensibly in the cops versus gangsters mould, blur the conventional boundaries of the day.” In one movie (Beast of the City, 1932), Burnett had the criminals walk free due to legal peculiarities, whereupon the frustrated police “take matters into their own hands and gun down the villains,” notes Crowther, foreshadowing “the kind of movie Clint Eastwood was to make his own 40 years later.” 2 On the other hand, in Roy Earle, the character Humphrey Bogart plays in High Sierra, Burnett depicted a criminal whose toughness is pierced by meeting a crippled girl who needs an operation. Responding to her goodness and innocence, Earle finally rejects his ruthless co-conspirators, pushing away even girlfriend Marie, a soulmate who remains devoted to him even as the amassed law enforcement forces of the West bomb him out of his Sierra Nevada cliff. Burnett’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) shows that even a meticulous jewel-heist, plotted by a pseudo-Nazi mastermind, can crumble due to sexual infatuations. “Crime is but a left-handed form of human endeavor,” says Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), another of Burnett’s memorable lines.
Burnett wrote movies through 1972. His scripts for Wake Island (1942) and The Great Escape (1963) were nominated for Academy Awards. He worked with directors from John Ford, John Huston, and Howard Hawks to Nicholas Ray and Michael Cimino, with actors from Humphrey Bogart to Frank Sinatra and Clint Eastwood. He wrote the novels or scripts on which at least fifty-six movies were based, as well as many radio and television shows. His hard-boiled efforts generally feature a big or small-time hood who has one last chance to change his life, usually though the graces of a good woman. But he needs money first. He agrees to help a gang commit a crime, but one of his colleagues gives them away. Unfortunately the system closes down on them before the protagonist can act on the regeneration latent in his heart.
In later years Burnett’s vision declined and he stopped writing, promoting his earlier work instead. Long popular in Spain and Italy, Burnett’s work was taken up in French and German film magazines in the 1980s, resulting in greater fame for him in Europe than in America. He died in 1982 at age eight-two.
1 Piers Gray, “On Linearity,” Critical Quarterly 38.3 (1996), 123.
2 Bruce Crowther, Film Noir: Reflections in a dark mirror. (New York: Ungar,1989), 19-21.