I WALK ALONE Showed a Shifting Noir Landscape

Getting ready for Noir City Austin 2019 with a look back at this telling genre piece

This weekend marks the 6th annual Noir City Austin; the retrospective film festival put on by the Film Noir Foundation where a collection of recently-restored genre gems linked by a common theme are presented to an audience of cinephiles, all of whom happily lap each one for an entire weekend. This year’s theme focuses on noir titles from the 1950s; a period when the genre had, for the most part, been forced to transform itself from exploring the seedy underbelly of the 40s, to finding a place in the conservative decade which followed. As audiences changed as a result of the times, so did the habits of the movies they chose to watch, which included those of super-producer Hal B. Wallis. Once considered a great purveyor of film noir who had shepherded the likes of Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and Sorry, Wrong Number (my personal favorite) to the screen, Wallis, like many of his contemporaries, saw the need to change with the times.

Change never comes in one fell swoop however; not even in the movies as evidenced by a small number of films Wallis made in the late 40s/early 50s which were rooted and noir, yet also proved to be strong indicators of the society which lay around the corner. The most notable of Wallis productions from this period is the severely underrated I Walk Alone from 1947. Featuring a trio of noir stars including Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Lizabeth Scott, the film tells the story of an ex-con named Frankie (Lancaster) recently released from prison who looks up his old partner Dink (Douglas) to collect his share of the last job they pulled together which sent him to prison. With Dink now a successful nightclub owner, Frankie figures there’s plenty of loot coming to him. Dink has other plans for Frankie however, including a beautiful torch singer named Kay (Scott), whom he sends his old partner’s way.

On the surface and beyond it, there’s no argument that I Walk Alone fits squarely into the world of film noir. The environments of a sleazy motel, a swanky nightclub (with a bunch of muscle hanging around) and a large deserted house in the country are all ripe for the kind of noirish goings-on that gives the genre it’s visual mark. Meanwhile, most of its plot elements read off like a laundry list of noir tropes. Frankie’s existence as an ex-con looking to settle an old score is perfectly in keeping with his role as the antihero protagonist, mostly common for films of this sort. His attempt at trying to keep his shady past at bay while trying to start anew is the kind of conflicted central figure audiences expected to see in a film like I Walk Alone. Equally commonplace in the realm of true noir is Kay’s function as the girl who escaped the small town for the big city. Draped in a sad sort of glamour, she’s the kind of beautiful outsider fitting into the nightclub world just enough to hold her own within it, while also desperate to escape. As the story progresses, Frankie and Kay eventually develop feelings for each other (mainly because the plot dictates it), but their love seems doomed to fail due to the choices they’ve made which threatens to hold them captive in one way or another.

What makes I Walk Alone especially worth remembering today is not the plot, characters or the stars; although all of the above prove more than enough reason to check it out. But it’s the way the film foreshadows the decade that was to come in a variety of ways which makes it more than a little notable all these years later. The 50s had not yet arrived, but Wallis must’ve seen the shifting of the tide enough to put it on the screen. Perhaps the most blatant example of this can be found in the scene in which Frankie shows up to Dink’s office with a group of thugs, determined to collect the money his former partner has made with the club. As Dink’s right hand man (Wendell Corey) explains to Frankie how there’s no outright money due to the liquor sales, furniture and everything else is effectively owned by a trio of corporations with very little physical cash up for grabs, the ex-con loses it. As more is explained to Frankie about how the club is not a black and white operation, but rather a fraction of a larger scale company, he all but goes bezerk at his frustration of not being able to collect, at the greater realization that the world he knew has changed and finally, that he may no longer have a place within it. It’s in the journey of Frankie that we see the noir figure take a look at the changing world he knew and discover that it’s beginning to fade away, leaving him stranded and somewhat lost.

Even though there wasn’t much enthusiasm which greeted I Walk Alone upon release, its contribution to the film noir canon has since been recognized. It wouldn’t be too long after the film that its stars and producer would gravitate towards the movie trends of the 50s, counting between them such career highlights as From Here to Eternity, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Bad and the Beautiful, among many others. Watching the movie today, it’s easy to be swept away by the production design, plot turns and the marvelous acting from the three leads, all of whom gave everything they had to their parts. But the underlying significance contained within I Walk Alone is only now just starting to be brought to light. In so many ways, the film achieves the aim countless others attempt (whether or not they knowingly mean to) but fail; namely the changing of the times and what it meant for both the characters of noir and the world they found themselves in.

I Walk Alone is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.

Noir City Austin runs from May 17th-19th at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, TX. For more information, please visit: https://drafthouse.com/austin/program/noir-city-austin, http://www.noircity.com or http://filmnoirfoundation.org/home.html.

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