W. R. Burnett’s Captain Lightfoot

W. R. (William Riley) Burnett (1899-1982) was a popular novelist and screenwriter of the 1930s-1970s, setting most of his stories in the underworld of American cities. His works were known for adventurous action, violence, and the featuring criminals as main protagonists. Burnett wrote (both as novels and screenplays) such classics as Little Caesar, The Asphalt Jungle, Scarface, and High Sierra. Burnett did not publicize his reasons for adapting the exploits of Captain Lightfoot and Captain Thunderbolt, but he must have been tempted to pay homage to his Irish heritage. Also, since he knew the novel was to be immediately adapted to film, he must have enjoyed the prospect of a lush, Technicolor-CinemaScope period piece–a contrast to the black and white film noir treatments of his earlier works.

Burnett only used the Irish exploits mentioned in Michael Martin’s confession as a pretext for his wholly fabricated story of a young highwayman (Michael Martin, i.e. Lightfoot) adopted as a partner by the senior criminal mastermind, Thunderbolt. In Burnett’s version, Thunderbolt has largely moved beyond highway robbery and is now the operator of a high-rolling Dublin gambling den. Martin agrees to be an aide to Thunderbolt once he learns that the proceeds of the operation are going towards Irish nationalists. Martin is also attracted by the charms of Thunderbolt’s daughter, Aga.

Burnett’s novel was well-received, but reviewers were probably aware that a movie was already in the works:

Burnett’s novel was generally well-reviewed as a light adventure story, perhaps falling short of what Burnett was quoted as saying was his attempt bring the flavor of a folk ballad to a novel. His depiction of Ireland lacked detail, and little effort was made to explore the politics of the Irish nationalists and of British rule.

Burnett was praised by some (and criticized by others) for employing criminals as his heroes; he was one of the first and best known advocates of the “anti-hero.” Captain Lightfoot fits this mold. The New York Times review of the novel ends:

“His [i.e. Captain Lightfoot’s] creator believes, however, that his story should show a moral, “but for the life of me,” he says, “I can’t make out what the moral can possibly be except the obvious and usual one: Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”

This admission, made at the same time (mid-1950s) when other aspects of popular culture (music, comic books, etc.) were under attack for their supposed immorality, helps to explain Burnett’s appeal.

Copies of Captain Lightfoot may be too old to be found in public libraries, and the work is not yet in the public domain. However, used book dealers still have many copies available, and inexpensive.

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