With most screenwriters, the work lives well after the name is forgotten. So it is with W. R. Burnett, who is all but lost in public memory, and yet the long narrative reach of this screenwriter and forgotten novelist extends to half a dozen key pop-culture tropes, especially cable drama’s dependence on tortured suburban outlaws—Tony Soprano, Walter White, Nancy Botwin. Burnett’s narrative innovations helped shape the arc of a century’s worth of popular culture, starting with his first novel, Little Caesar, a surprise bestseller in 1929 that was adapted into Hollywood’s first gangster film; together with Scarface (Burnett wrote the 1932 screenplay), these two films remain gangster boilerplate. A decade later, he helped create film noir through director John Huston’s adaptation of Burnett’s novel High Sierra and his own screenplay for Graham Greene’s This Gun for Hire. Burnett also has a solid claim to inventing the heist film with 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle, a novel-turned-noir classic (again by Huston) that even had a Blaxploitation remake a generation later, called Cool Breeze. His last screenplay was for The Great Escape, the acclaimed 1963 World War II film that established Steve McQueen as an icon of cool: His character’s nickname was “The Cooler King,” in reference to his ability to maintain his dignity and sanity even in solitary confinement (that is, even in “the cooler”). Five years later, Burnett’s last novel, The Cool Man, was a swan song for his most original contribution to American cool: the existential criminal. This admirable figure was an independent, ethical man within his own code, riveting for his contradictions, and ultimately doomed as someone who, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, lives outside the law because he assumes himself honest.
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