Fighting out of the blue corner, with the prison pallor, the brand new cheap suit, and the “not good, not bad” room at the Avon, it’s Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster), former world heavyweight champion of bootlegging.
Fighting out of the red corner, with the jutting cleft chin, the expensive wardrobe, and the controlling interest in the swank night spot the Regent Club, it’s Noll “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas), the current world heavyweight champion of upscale criminality.
Let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuumble!
When the film begins, Frankie, a former hard man in the bootlegging rackets who came up in a tough neighborhood and knew how to handle himself, has just gotten out of prison after a 14-year stretch for murder.
He’s picked up at Grand Central Station by his old friend Dave (Wendell Corey), who’s now the bookkeeper for Dink Turner.
The killing that sent Frankie to prison occurred when he and Dink were running rye whiskey from Canada through upstate New York and they blew through a roadblock set up by hijackers, which led to a chase and a gun battle that left one of the hijackers dead. Afterward, Dink and Frankie split up and agreed to go 50-50 for each other, no matter what happened or which one of them got nabbed.
All of Turner’s men call him “Noll” now, but Frankie mostly still refers to him as “Dink.” When Dave takes Frankie to the Regent Club, Frankie recognizes his old friend Dan (Mike Mazurki), a hulking mug who used to be behind the door of Dink and Frankie’s speakeasy the Four Kings, staring through a little peephole. Now he’s out front, in a snappy uniform.
A lot has changed in 14 years, but Frankie’s still the same guy he was when he went to prison.
Dink tells him, “The world’s spun right past you, Frankie. In the ’20s you were great. In the ’30s you might’ve made the switch, but today you’re finished. As dead as the headlines the day you went into prison.” (On New Year’s Day, 1930, Burt Lancaster was 16 years old and Kirk Douglas had just turned 13, so I think both men might be a little young for the roles they’re playing.)
The Regent Club was built on the force of Dink’s personality. It was his personality that controlled Frankie back in their bootlegging days. He expects the force of his personality to still be able to get Frankie to do what he wants, but all of his smooth talk and finesse only carries him so far.
Frankie is bitter than Dink never came to personally visit him in prison, and instead sent Dave, even though the prison was only an hour’s drive on the new parkway. All Dink did was send Frankie a carton of cigarettes a month.
Dink tells Frankie he feels terrible about never coming to see him, but that he just couldn’t be associated with a convicted murderer when he was building up a high-class joint like the Regent Club. Back in the days of the Four Kings they ruled things by force, but now Dink deals with banks and lawyers, and his nightclub has a Dun & Bradstreet rating.
Dink manages to deflect Frankie for a little while by setting him up with his paramour Kay Lawrence, who’s played by the angular, dead-eyed beauty Lizabeth Scott. Dink tells Kay he wants her to find out what Frankie really wants, so he can help him, but she can’t help falling for Frankie a little, especially after Dink shows his true colors by planning to marry the wealthy Mrs. Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) while telling Kay that it’s just to increase his wealth and prestige, and his upcoming nuptials don’t have to change anything between him and Kay.
Frankie is volatile and brutish. He wants what’s his. But he’s like a bulldozer and Dink is like a silk curtain. No matter how hard he comes at him, Dink just seems to slide harmlessly to one side.
Dink tells Frankie that their 50-50 agreement was based on their partnership in the Four Kings, not on anything future. Dave brought Frankie a lot of things to sign in prison that he didn’t read very carefully, and one of them was a dissolution of his partnership in the Four Kings. After closing costs, plus 6% interest compounded over 14 years, there’s $2,912 Frankie has coming to him. Dink makes it an even $3,000 and wishes him well. Frankie wants half of everything Dink has, but Dink doesn’t think Frankie’s entitled to anything Dink earned on his own after the Four Kings closed down. “How can you collect on a race when you don’t hold a ticket?” Dink asks Frankie rhetorically.
This confrontation occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film, and it’s a great sequence. Burt Lancaster was a former acrobat and circus performer, and he was always wonderful at using his body. When he finally realizes how little he can do to get what he wants from Dink, he stands alone in the middle of Dink’s conference room, his fists balled, bent over in anguish.
I Walk Alone was directed by Byron Haskin and produced by Hal B. Wallis. The screenplay is by Charles Schnee, and it’s based on the play Beggars Are Coming to Town by Theodore Reeves.
It’s not a bad film, but it’s not good enough to be called a classic. Part of the problem is that it too often strays from its most compelling feature, the snarling macho men at its center who oppose each other. I was really caught up in the story when Dink denies Frankie his half and Frankie vows to kill him, but then the story veers into less interesting territory. Where does Dave’s loyalty lie? What does Dink have over Dave? Will Dave be able to break free? Does Kay really love Frankie? And so on.
Lancaster and Douglas are both outsized personalities who dominate the screen. By the time things come to a head two-thirds of the way through the film, the picture might have been more compelling if it focused solely on them and their head-to-head conflict, instead of spinning off a variety of plot threads.
The film ends with a shootout in a darkened room that we’ve seen a hundred times before and will probably see a thousand times again. Like everything else in the film, it’s not terrible, but it’s too run-of-the-mill to be truly outstanding.
I Walk Alone is definitely worth seeing if you’re a die-hard fan of either of the two lead actors, and worth a look for film noir fans who’ve never seen it. If, however, you’re looking for something truly great, I Walk Alone never quite rises above the level of entertaining mediocrity.