“Don’t worry about me, little one. I just got out of prison, not college.”
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas are a unique duo in film history. They’re neither comical like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, nor do they display the chummy camaraderie that made Paul Newman and Robert Redford such a likable couple. Their collaboration was tight, gritty, and barring the silly swan song tough guys (1986) they rarely agreed. The magic of Lancaster and Douglas was in the tension. They never seemed to be completely comfortable, and as a result we could never take our eyes off them.
Lancaster and Douglas got their start in film noir in the late ’40s. Both hit home runs in their film debuts and established the personalities that would go on to perfect them for decades to come. The former debuted in The murderers (1946), was a chiseled buffoon, a man whose chivalry and decorum were his undoing. The latter debuted in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (also 1946), was a shyster, a scoundrel who cheated everyone to get ahead. They were the perfect yin and yang, which Paramount producer Hal B. Wallis took note of when casting the 1947 release. I go alone.
Contrary to the film title I go alone thrives on the chemistry between its stars. It’s a rare instance of a star-studded cast in which none of the stars have yet broken out, and the result is a murderous, often-overlooked noir that kickstarts the Lancaster-Douglas mythos.
The premise is as simple as it is effective: Frankie Madison (Lancaster) and Noll “Dink” Turner (Douglas) are bootleggers during Prohibition. They get into a shootout with would-be kidnappers and the two men are forced to separate when police arrive at the scene. Frankie is caught and sentenced to 14 years in prison while Noll is free to build a smuggling empire. The former gets out and seeks out his old pal, expecting a cut in profits, but Noll makes it perfectly clear that he owes him nothing. Neither man is willing to budge, and war is effectively declared.
It’s clear from the jump that Lancaster and Douglas together are dynamite. Their approaches to characterization are radically different: Lancaster is the tortured soul fighting her bad tendencies, while Douglas is the louse who must fend off fleeting moments of decency. They are essentially a Venn diagram of morality, which makes the overlap in the middle all the more compelling. It’s generally easy to determine who’s going to win in a given standoff, even when both sides are star-played, but the actors portray Frankie and Noll so convincingly that the viewer is genuinely unsure of where things are going to go.
The supporting cast aren’t too shabby either. Lizabeth Scott plays Kay Lawrence, the nightclub singer who dates Noll and begins to fall in love with Frankie. It’s not a groundbreaking installment, but Scott is in her element, bringing with her the same tired seduction she delivered Martha Ivers and dead reckoning (1947). A weaker actress would have made the Kay scenes feel like filler between the main plot, but Scott’s chemistry with both men ensures they are just as compelling.
Wendell Corey also delivers the goods in what turns out to be a crucial part. He’s Noll’s bookie Dave, and while he’s spent the last decade and a half turning a blind eye, his reunion with Frankie revitalizes his sense of decency. He’s the character most aware of the crimes that have been going on, and Corey manages to communicate that conflict through his subtly manic mannerisms. Few actors were better at remaining calm on the outside while being contradictory on the inside. He had made his debut alongside Lancaster and Scott the previous year on the extremely bizarre show desert fury (1947), and the Dave character proved he was no flash in the pan.
Byron Haskin was a journeyman filmmaker whose greatest credit was as a special effects artist for household names such as John Ford and Raoul Walsh. He never made the A-list, but as this film proves and Too late for tears (1949) he was able to shoot a tight film noir with the best. Given the 97-minute running time, there’s no fat on the bone here, and Haskin avoids the narrative detours that would (and did) spoil other noir releases of the era.
I go alone is not a flawless release, and Lancaster and Douglas would have other notable collaborations, but it is grossly underrated when it comes to giving fans what they want. It’s a perfect summary of what made both actors so attractive early in their careers, and better yet, it gives them a chance to showcase their talents side-by-side. Not a classic, but a cult film that needs to be rediscovered.
TRIVIA: Lux Radio Theater aired an hour-long adaptation of I go alone in 1948. Lancaster and Scott reprized their roles.
All articles from Danilo’s Film Noir Review can be found here.
Danilo Castro is a Film Noir fan and contributing writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more articles and reviews by Danilo at the Film Noir Archive or follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.