W.R. BURNETT - American Realist

Written 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.’

WR Burnett

Crime fiction and film lovers will immediately recognise this as coming from Little 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 Balzac’s: 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. That’s 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. That’s 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 gangster’s hit man, known as Barber, provided the background for ‘Little Caesar’. ‘What I got from him was a viewpoint. I’m 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. I’d ask him, after he’d 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. That’s 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 theme: The 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 plays. ‘High 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 that matter?”. 

 ‘The Great Escape’ (1963) was based on a true story by British POW, Paul Brickhill. Burnett introduced the ‘scrounger’, James Garner character and Steve McQueen’s ‘Hilts’ for American interest. Hilts was the ball – endlessly bouncing against the walls, with no hope of escape – a typical Burnett, anti-hero, allegory. 

 During the Cold War he wrote his urban trilogy: The 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 with Watergate. 


 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 trick’. 

With the sixties and the Vietnam war he saw a revolution in manners and morals that made it a ‘different world now’. Burnett’s 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 – that’s 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 aren’t very great for anybody. You’re born, you’re gonna have trouble, and you’re gonna die. That you know. There’s not much else you know.’ Of all Burnett’s 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 Hollywood’s 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/ 

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W.R. Burnett

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