This rarely seen film noir, which pairs screen legends Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas for the first time, is a somewhat unusual but very enjoyable entry in the genre. Kino is to be commended for finally making this hidden gem available for home viewers.
The Production: 3.5/5
I Walk Alone is a film noir from 1947 that’s notable for many reasons. It’s the first pairing of screen legends Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, who would go on to make several more films together over their impressive careers. It’s a rare drama from director Byron Haskin, who is best remembered for his pioneering special effects work. And, most interestingly, it’s a film made during the production code era which is far less moralizing and far more forgiving than most other films of its time.
Burt Lancaster stars as Frankie, who is just getting out of jail after a fourteen year sentence when the film begins. He wound up in jail during Prohibition, caught transporting illegal liquor. But he didn’t work alone; his partner Dink (Kirk Douglas) was also with him on the night of his arrest. As the two men fled the law, they decided to split up to increase the chances that at least one of them would escape. They struck a deal that if one got caught, the other would hold on to the profits and distribute them equally afterwards. But while Frankie languished in jail, Dink built up an empire. Their mutual friend Dave (Wendell Corey) arranged all of the bookkeeping, and under Dink’s direction, organized things in such a way as to cheat Frankie out of his fair share. So when Frankie gets out of jail and comes in good faith to collect his money, he’s startled to discover that there’s nothing for him. As Dink keeps trying to climb the ladder at Frankie’s expense, Dink’s girlfriend Kay (Lizabeth Scott) begins questioning her relationship with Dink and turning her eyes to Frankie. But it soon becomes apparent that Dink will do anything to keep the money and make Frankie go away.
What’s particularly interesting about this setup is that Frankie was absolutely guilty of the crime he was imprisoned for. In the era of the production code, the rules stipulated that “bad guys” could not be sympathetic and could not be perceived as “getting away with it.” In a more typical film of the era, the character of Frankie would have been conceived as an innocent man who was falsely imprisoned, a bystander who got caught up in something he had no control over. Instead, the film takes a more nuanced, compassionate view: that Frankie had indeed committed a crime, but having paid his debt to society, was worthy of redemption. At the time of the film’s original release, this caused a mild controversy (legendarily ornery critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was particularly incensed by the idea that a former criminal could be a sympathetic figure). The film doesn’t judge its characters for bootlegging liquor, which seems reasonable given that Prohibition had been over for nearly 15 years at the time of the its making and given that alcohol was never as vilified by society as it was by the law. Frankie may have broken the law, but the film implicitly argues that he never acted immorally. Dink, on the other hand, has used Frankie’s incapacitation as a chance to steal Frankie’s share of the money and create his own thriving nightclub business, and it’s Dink’s duplicitous behavior that the film reserves its judgment for.
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, appearing onscreen together for the first time, are well paired here. Lancaster radiates a simple, straightforward decency, wanting what’s owed to him but just as strongly wanting to stay on the right side of the law to get it. Lancaster is able to effectively guide us through the emotions of a character who comes out of jail expecting to be greeted with open arms and friendship by his partner, only to discover that his faith was misplaced. Douglas, on the other hand, excels at playing the shadier character. When he first appears onscreen, he’s all warmth and charm, but beneath that facade is an icy interior. At first glance, Douglas seems like he could be a friend, but look a little closer and you can see the wheels turning as he prepares to carry out his schemes. As the third man in their group, Wendell Corey is all business on the surface, but Corey lets hints of his character’s inner conflict shine through the calmer demeanor. Lizabeth Scott, as the love interest, credibly portrays her character’s growing uncertainty about Dink, giving her character more of an arc than one might expect in a noir.
Producer Hal Wallis and director Byron Haskin are today remembered for bigger pictures, whether its the prestige of Wallis’ production of Casablanca and other A-pictures of the time, or the spectacle that Haskin brought to sci-fi extravaganzas like War of the Worlds and adventure films like Treasure Island. Working here with a more limited budget, the two men use their resources with great economy. It is to their credit that the film never feels low budget, but rather, comes across as being the right size for a story about people living at the edge of society, looking in and wanting more.
3D Rating: NA
I Walk Alone is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, in a transfer created from a 4K scan of a duplicate negative by the Paramount Pictures Archive. Though it is often apparent that the transfer is coming from a dupe rather than the original negative, it is nonetheless generally a very good transfer from a good element. There are minimal signs of wear, but the image is generally steady and clear. Towards the end of the film, there appear some minor inconsistencies in the greyscale and moments of minor unsteadiness, but nothing that detracts from the film itself. For a film that’s been long unavailable in any home video format, it is a welcome surprise to see this film looking as good as it does.
The film’s monaural audio is presented in the lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 format, which decoded into the center channel. Dialogue is generally well recorded, clear and easy to understand. While the video has some minor flaws (as noted above), the audio is generally a much more consistent experience.
Optional English subtitles are also included on the disc.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Audio Commentary by Film Historian Troy Howarth – Howarth’s track is well researched, and presented in a more casual, conversational style. His observations range from specifics about the film itself to more general comments about the film noir genre and film history. While some of his more generalized comments may seem obvious or redundant, his thoughts on the actual film are more focused and worthwhile.
Also included on the disc are trailers for the following Kino releases: The Devil’s Disciple, Valdez Is Coming, Cast A Giant Shadow, Elmer Gantry, and The Indian Fighter.
Long unavailable on any home video format, Kino’s new disc of I Walk Alone is a quality release. The film would be worth viewing solely for the pairing of stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, but also is notable for its sympathetic portrayal of Lancaster’s character as someone worthy of redemption and a second chance. The video transfer, while not perfect, is more than enough to allow the film’s distinctive look to shine through, and the audio commentary adds some interesting background on the film’s production, cast and crew. This is another quality release from Kino that finally allows a chance for this lesser known film to be rediscovered.