W.R. Burnett


Date of Birth 25 November 1899, Springfield, Ohio, USA Date of Death 25 April 1982, Santa Monica, California, USA Birth Name William Riley Burnett Mini Biography One of the most influential writers in screen history, W. R. Burnett has contributed countless classic moments in cinema. Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1899. By the time he left in 1927, he'd written over a hundred short stories and five novels, all unpublished. At 28, he left a civil service job he'd held for years and moved to Chicago where he found a job as a night-clerk in a seedy hotel. He found himself associating with a cornucopia of characters straight from the mean streets of Chicago -- prize-fighters, hoodlums, hustlers, and hobos. They inspired Little Caesar (novel 1929, film 1931) -- its overnight success landed him a job as a Hollywood screenwriter. Little Caesar (1931) became a classic movie, produced by First National Pictures (Warners) and starring then unknown Edward G. Robinson. The Al Capone theme was one he returned to in 1932 with Scarface (1932). Burnett kept busy, producing a novel or more a year and turning most into screenplays (some as many as three times). Thematically Burnett was similar to Hammett and James M. Cain but his contrasting of the corruption and corrosion of the city with the better life his characters yearned for, represented by the paradise of the pastoral, was fresh and original. He portrayed characters who have, for one reason or another, fallen into a life of crime. Once sucked into this life they've been unable to climb out. They get one last shot at salvation but the oppressive system closes in and denies redemption. Burnett's characters exist in world of twilight morality -- virtue can come from gangsters and criminals, malice from guardians and protectors. Above all, all of his characters were human -- this could be their undoing. In High Sierra (1941), Humphrey Bogart's Roy Earle plays a hard-bitten criminal who rejects his life of crime to help a crippled girl. In The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the most perfectly masterminded plot falls apart as each character reveals a weakness. Bruce Crowther wrote that Burnett's screenplays, "while still ostensibly in the cops versus gangsters mold, blur the conventional boundaries of the day." In The Beast of the City (1932), the police take the law into their own hands when the criminals walk free on a legal loophole presaging Dirty Harry (1971) by almost 40 years. Burnett worked with many of the greats in acting and directing -- to name a few and certainly not all: John Huston, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray and Michael Cimino, Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Paul Muni, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen, and Clint Eastwood. He was Oscar nominated for his scripts for Wake Island (1942), and The Great Escape (1963), in addition to his film work he wrote scripts for television and radio. In later years with his vision declining, he stopped writing and turned to promoting his earlier work. In his career, he achieved huge popularity in Europe where his anti-hero ideology was enthusiastically embraced. He died in 1982 aged 82.

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