Noir Poets: W R Burnett

“And suddenly Roy didn’t give a damn about Velma, or about Pa and Ma. He realized that they had never been real people to him at all, but figments out of a dream of the past. He began vaguely to understand that ever since the prison gate clanged shut behind him he’d been trying to return to his boyhood, where it was always summer and in the evenings the lightning-bugs flashed under the big branches of the sycamore trees and he swung on the farm gate with the yellow-haired girl from across the road while the Victrola on the porch played Dardanella. . . . Pa and Ma were replicas of his own folks merely, and Velma wasn’t really Velma, a slim, ordinary little blonde, but the ghost of Roma Stover, the yellow-haired girl swinging on the gate. . . .”

W. R. Burnett – High Sierra (1940)

5 thoughts on “Noir Poets: W R Burnett”

  1. Hi! Tony…
    What a very interesting quote from director Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra…As a matter of fact,I have watched this film twice and the western noir version
    Colorado Territory only once thanks to Sam Juliano, sending me a Warner Archive copy of the latter version.

    (I’am not sure, 😕 but according to Wiki(pedia) I think that director Raoul Walsh, directed both films.

    [Postscript: Oops! I almost forgot to mention the third version…I Died A Thousand Times starring actor Jack Palance and actress Shelly Winters.

    Thanks, for sharing!
    DeeDee 😉 🙂


  2. Thats a poetic passage there with some a nice dose of atmospheric veritas. HIGH SIERRA is a screen classic, and the best of the three films Dee Dee mentions there by a distance.

    Perhaps Alain Silver puts things in perspective most acutely, while also giving attention to the descriptive quality made possible by Burnett’s beautiful writing:

    “HIGH SIERRA may be Walsh’s most powerful expression of the individual’s quest for freedom, a fact that in some ways seems to divorce it from the noir cycle. The sun shines generously; the characters are freed from the stricture of black little rooms, and are led out into grassy parks and lush mountain pathways where the night skies are filled with stars rather than fogged with neon. But Walsh’s lavish display of the glories of the natural world reinforce, by contrast, his grim view of human existence. Surrounded by magnificence, man is miserable. The superbly soaring peaks of the Sierras mock his insignificance and are monuments to his unreachable desires.”

    And where did I get Silver’s book?

    It was a present from Dee Dee!


  3. Thanks Sam.

    Not to be pedantic, but the piece on High Sierra in Silver’s & Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference, was written by Julie Kirgo. It is interesting that Kirgo not once mentions Burnett’s or John Huston’s (he co-wrote the script with Burnett) contribution! Fair enough, Walsh made a great picture and Bogart was made for the role – when reading the book you wonder who came first Roy Earl or Bogart! – but the essential elements of story, character, and place are Burnett’s.

    Indeed, Kirgo’s piece is a review of the book (she has not read?), not the movie, and the absurd thing is she ascribes everything to Walsh when they belong to Burnett:

    . “Walsh’s protagonists are struggling… ”
    . “Walsh’s most powerful expression of the individuals’s quest for freedom… ”
    . “Walsh’s sense of a cruel, inexorable, fate viewed in a High Sierra with a mordant humor”
    . “Walsh’s characters are far more than pathetic victims.”

    Auteur theory [and Kirgo, Silver & Ward] has a LOT to answer for!


  4. Indeed Tony. I stand corrected. I also was amazed that Kirgo didn’t mention Burnett once, and seemed only interested in Walsh’s contribution. She was delinquent in that regard, but let’s face as you your illustrated it was a vital regard. This was one of the more irresponsible oversights I’ve ever read, and probably a rarity for that otherwise definitive volume.


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