American novelist and screenwriter William Riley Burnett enjoyed a prolific career that spanned more than five decades. Born in Springfield, Ohio in 1899, Burnett went on to study journalism and got a job as a statistician. By the time he moved to Chicago to work as a night clerk at the Northmere Hotel at the age of twenty-eight, he had already produced, but not published, five novels and a hundred short stories. It is at his new workplace that the author got to witness the people and interactions that made up the nightlife of Chicago, at a time when Al Capone was in power. This experience inspired his first novel Little Caesar (1929) which became so successful that Hollywood came knocking on his door. During his lifetime, Burnett published more than thirty novels, wrote numerous short stories and plays and ended up having about sixty writing credits to his name. Not only has he been deemed the inventor of the contemporary crime novel, but his influence is clearly visible in every modern crime series, movie or novel.
The film rights to the aforementioned Little Caesar were bought by Warner Bros. and the screenwriters Francis Edward Faragoh and Robert N. Lee turned the gangster novel into a screenplay that got an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Screenplay. With Mervyn LeRoy in the director’s chair and starring Edward G. Robinson in the role that made him a star, the plot revolves around a small-time criminal who climbs the ladder of organized crime. The character was modeled on Al Capone, of course, and it has been said that the notorious gangster even had a spy on the set. Little Caesar is not only a seminal gangster film, but also an unprecedented one, the very first in a row of classic American gangster movies.
For the fee of $2000 a week, Burnett contributed to Ben Hecht’s screenplay for the significant and controversial 1932 film Scarface (alongside John Lee Mahin, Seton I. Miller and Fred Pasley), which was directed by Howard Hawks and loosely based on Armitage Trail’s eponymous novel that follows gangster Antonio "Tony" Camonte rising through the mob ranks in Chicago. Inspired by Capote yet again, the film involves a portrayal of the 1929 Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, which Burnett knew a thing or two about, seeing as how he was one of the first people at the scene of the crime. Screenwriter Hecht later claimed that two of Capone’s henchmen paid him a visit, concerned about the film, whereas Hawks was asked to enable the mob boss a private screening before the movie hit theaters—and the filmmaker allegedly declined, stating: “'The Big Shot' will have to lay down his money at the box office if he wants to see Scarface.”
Some of Burnett’s novels were adapted several times. For example, his book Iron Man was first turned into a 1931 motion picture of the same name, directed by Tod Browning and starring Lew Ayres (who had become a star just a year earlier with All Quiet on the Western Front), and was remade twenty years later by Joseph Pevney. The novel Saint Johnson, one of the first fictionalized recountals of the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral, served as the basis for the John Huston-penned film Law and Order (1932) directed by Edward L. Cahn, which was also the first motion picture to depict the aforementioned event. Saint Johnson was turned into three other feature films: Ford Beebe and Clifford Smith’s Wild West Days (1937), the 1940 version Law and Order helmed by Ray Taylor and, last but not least, Nathan Juran’s 1953 Western Law and Order with Ronald Reagan in the lead role. The 1933 novel Dark Hazard was also adapted more than once—the first version was Alfred E. Green’s 1934 drama film of the same name and the second was Louis King’s Wine, Women and Horses (1937).
In 1941, Burnett got the chance to turn his own crime novel High Sierra into a screenplay, together with John Huston as co-writer. The eponymous movie, directed by Raoul Walsh, was such a success that it enabled Humphrey Bogart to transition from supporting actor to leading man and gave Huston the opportunity to finally venture into filmmaking, which resulted in his directorial debut The Maltese Falcon (starring Bogart) hitting the box office later that year. High Sierra, the story of a former convict who is set on executing an important heist (inspired by John Dillinger), is seen as the gangster film that introduced the moral nuances and style that would come to characterize film noir, as well as paved the way for outlaw films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Raoul Walsh went on to remake his own movie in 1949, only this version was called Colorado Territory and the script was written by Edmund H. North and John Twist, whereas Stuart Heisler helmed I Died a Thousand Times (1955), a scene-by-scene remake of High Sierra starring Jack Palance and Shelley Winters.
The year 1950 saw John Huston turning Burnett’s 1949 novel The Asphalt Jungle into a crucial film noir. Nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor—Sam Jaffe—and Best Cinematography), with a screenplay written by Huston and Ben Maddow and featuring an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe, The Asphalt Jungle revolves around an elaborately plotted jewel heist. And even though the film received criticism back in the day on account of its sympathetic portrayal of criminals, this is precisely the element that gives the film nuance and depth, making it stand out. Or as Huston himself said, according to film scholar Carlos Clarens in Crime Movies: An Illustrated History: ‘My defense...was that unless we understand the criminal...there's no way of coping with him.' The novel itself was adapted three more times—into Delmer Daves’ 1958 western caper The Badlanders, in 1963 under the title Cairo and as the blaxploitation heist movie Cold Breeze (1972).
Although it would be impossible to list all of the films that were based on Burnett’s works, every important actor and filmmaker he had collaborated with over the years, as well as the plethora of artists he inspired and paved the way for, it is well worth mentioning that Burnett received a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination (together with co-writer Frank Butler) for his work on John Farrow’s 1942 war drama Wake Island, as well as a Writers Guild nomination for The Great Escape (which he co-wrote with James Clavell), a classic starring Steve McQueen, based on Paul Brickhill’s eponymous non-fiction book. Given the quality of Burnett’s material, the number of credits he accumulated and the extent of his artistic influence on the world of film, it is a great injustice that he departed from this world without winning any awards and getting the recognition he so rightfully deserved.