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Burnett - American Realist
By Martin Spellman
|Rico was standing in
front of the mirror, combing his hair with a little ivory pocket
comb. Rico was vain of his hair. It was black and lustrous, combed
straight back from his low forehead and arranged in three
symmetrical waves. Rico was a simple man. He loved but three things:
himself, his hair and his gun. He took excellent care of all three.
Crime fiction and film lovers will immediately recognise this as
Caesar but perhaps not the writer WR Burnett. Burnett
grew up in Springfield, Ohio, in the early 20th century, where he
became a civil service statistician.
He was keen on realist fiction by writers like Honore de Balzac,
author of the Comedie Humaine series; Stendhal, Zola and
Joseph Conrad and tried to write in that style.
My primary purpose was always the same as Balzacs: to
give the most realistic picture of the world around me that I could
possibly do, he said later. He wrote, but found no market, for
five novels and over 100 short stories at that time.
Two events were to prove major turning points: moving to Chicago in
1927 hit me with such great impact and was to provide
the basis for his gangster books; the second was a three-week stay
in Tombstone, which started him off on Westerns. The gunfight at the
OK Corral had taken place 50 years before but Wyatt Earp only died
in 1929 and the event was still in living memory. I got a
complete feel for the town because it was practically preserved. I
got a real feel for the country. Thats what really makes the
book (Saint Johnson). This was in the 1930s, but I talked to three
different ranchers, in their sixties or seventies, who were still
hashing over the feud, which was very interesting. It was not an
historical thing for them that had happened yesterday, and they were
still on different sides. Thats what I mean when I say I got
the real feel for the men and the countryside. The book has
been filmed five times. In 1932 it was adapted as the Western Law
and Order and the gangster film Beast of the City,
both starring Walter Huston.
His job as a desk clerk in the Chicago Northmere Hotel and contact
with a gangsters hit man, known as Barber, provided the
background for Little Caesar. What I got from him
was a viewpoint. Im not a gangster; he really was. I had the
old-fashioned Ohio ideas about right and wrong, remorse and all that
stuff, which to him was utter nonsense. Id ask him, after hed
kill guys, leave em on the street, how did he feel? And he
said, How do soldiers feel? To him it was a war.
Of the main character, Rico Bandetti, played in the film by Edward
G Robsinson, he said: I was reaching for a gutter Macbeth
a composite figure that would indicate how men could rise to
prominence or money under the most hazardous conditions, but not
much more hazardous than the men of the Renaissance. Nobody
understood what I meant by the quotation from Machiavelli at the
front of Little Caesar: The first law of every
being is to preserve itself and live. You sow hemlock and you expect
corn to ripen. It meant, if you have this type of society, it
will produce such men. Thats what I was looking for, a type.
Rico was doomed from the first. If he had a tragic flaw, it was
over-impulsive action. But he is the picture of overriding ambition.
Burnett may have actually appeared in the film, himself the bindle
stiff who walks into the doss house at the end could be him.
He often wrote himself in as characters usually some kind of
journalist/writer with a love of literature, classics and ancient
history. His choice of name for Hilts, the Airforce Lieutenant in
his last film The Great Escape was Virgil.
Burnett was a realist with a libertarian streak, in the American
fashion. Do you know what a rebel is? he asked.
People confuse a revolutionary with a rebel. A revolutionary is a
politician who is out of office. And a rebel is a guy who is
suspicious of all authority, left or right. Little
Caesar began a series of box office hits on the gangster
Public Enemy came out in 1931 starring James Cagney. That was
not a Burnett script but Scarface: Shame of a Nation
(1932), starring Paul Muni as Al Capone was co-scripted by him.
In all he wrote 36 novels and 60 screenplays, plus 100 songs and 20
Sierra was filmed three times: first with Humphrey Bogart in
1941, again as the Western Colorado Territory and in
1955 as I Died a Thousand Times. Burnett thought this
the better version except for the choice of the repulsive
people Shelley Winters and Jack Palance as stars. Who
gives a damn what happens to Shelley Winters? Or Jack Palance for
The Great Escape (1963) was based on a true story by
British POW, Paul Brickhill. Burnett introduced the scrounger,
James Garner character and Steve McQueens Hilts
for American interest. Hilts was the ball endlessly bouncing
against the walls, with no hope of escape a typical Burnett,
During the Cold War he wrote his urban trilogy:
Asphalt Jungle (1949), Little Men, Big World
(1951) and Vanity Row (1952). This last is a dark,
depressing book about corruption in which he later saw parallels
He thought his work was not taken seriously as gangster and western
stories were not regarded as literature. Despite his own output, and
although he admired Conan Doyle and Georges Simenon, he said he was
never attracted to mysteries, which he regarded as just a
With the sixties and the Vietnam war he saw a revolution in manners
and morals that made it a different world now. Burnetts
work was being overtaken by the Bond films and later with the new
stage of gangster movies, The Godfather (1972) and
Godfather II (1974). The Cool Man (1963) was his
last book for 12 years as failing sight made writing difficult and
he concentrated on recycling his earlier works. His last published
book came in 1981, symbolically titled Goodbye, Chicago: 1928,
End of an Era. He claimed to be working on five more books
when he died the following year.
He described his philosophy: A writer has to have an
imagination thats 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 arent very great
for anybody. Youre born, youre gonna have trouble, and
youre gonna die. That you know. Theres not much else you
know. Of all Burnetts books only Little Caesar
and The Asphalt Jungle are generally available now.
Hopefully more will be republished.
The interview with WR Burnett quoted in this article was by Ken
Mate and Pat Milligan and can be found in Backstory 1:
Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywoods Golden Age,
University of California Press, 1986 Kathy Harper, a student at
Bowling Green University in the USA, has devoted a website to
Burnett and his works: http://personal.bgsu.edu/~kharper/