Saturday, September 15, 2007

W.R. Burnett

Over on the excellent messageboard The Big Adios ( the fine western The Yellow Sky was mentioned and I followed up with a brief bit on its author W.R. Burnett. A few people wrote me off-line to mention that they weren't familiar with his work. Here, from the Turner Classic Movie site, is a biography of the much underrated writer:


A highly-prolific author whose novels and short stories provided the basis for numerous films ranging from the gangster classic "Little Caesar" (1930) to the Western "Dark Command" (1940), W R Burnett also adapted his own work for film (e.g., "High Sierra" 1941) and wrote original screenplays, both alone and in collaboration (e.g., "This Gun for Hire" 1942, "The Great Escape" 1963).

A former government statistician, Burnett settled in Chicago at the height of Prohibition and penned his first novel "Little Caesar" in 1929. A veiled study of the rise and fall of a mobster who bore a passing resemblance to Al Capone, the novel was an success as was the screen version starring Edward G Robinson. Books and stories with Burnett's by-line were almost a guaranteed sale to Hollywood (not unlike John Grisham and Stephen King in the late 20th Century), and eventually the writer turned to penning his own scripts for Tinseltown. Not only were the villains in Burnett novels revealed in full human texture--something little seen in melodramas--but also the characters of the cops and other urban authority figures were often idiosyncratic and full-bodied, His storytelling practically created the Warner Bros. gangster cycle of the 1930s, reaching a high point with his contributions to the dialogue of "Scarface" (1932). "High Sierra" (1941), adapted from his own novel, offered Humphrey Bogart one of his signature villains and "This Gun for Hire" (1942) brought Alan Ladd to the forefront as a hit man seeking revenge.

With the advent of World War II, gangster films lessened in popularity so Burnett turned to writing or co-writing dramas about men in combat situations. He and co-writer Frank Butler shared an Academy Award nomination for their original screenplay of "Wake Island" (1942), a gripping drama about American troops fighting to maintain control of the titular Pacific island at the outbreak of WWII. He went on to collaborate on "Crash Dive" and "Action in the North Atlantic" (both 1943), among others. Following the war, Burnett turned to Westerns (e.g., "San Antonio" 1946; "Belle Starr's Daughter" 1948) and then returned to form with the film noir "The Racket" (1951). He added a dose of humor to the action genre with "Sergeants Three" (1962), a loose remake of "Gunga Din" with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr before penning his final credited screenplay, 1963's tense "The Great Escape", based on the largest escape of Allied POWs in World War II and featuring a star-making turn by Steve McQueen.


Randy Johnson said...

I've enjoyed a number of his movies over the years, but the only one of his books I've read was Bitter Ground, a quite good western.

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

I'm surprised that the precis of Burnett's career fails to mention one of his most celebrated novels, _The Asphalt Jungle_ (1949).

Anonymous said...

Even if Burnett's name isn't widely known anymore, I'll bet a lot of people still recognize the term Little Caesar. I watched the movie again a few months ago (I don't know if Burnett had a hand in the script, but as I recall, it followed the novel very closely) and was struck by how well it stands up after 70-some years.

Anonymous said...

W. R. Burnett wrote two superb westerns, Adobe Walls and Bitter Ground. (Back when I was a neophyte western novelist, my Ballantine editor, Mary Ann Eckels, recommended them to me as models.) And of course his Asphalt Jungle set the stage for future novels about urban youth. He was published by Alfred Knopf, back before a distinction was made between "literary" and "popular" fiction.