Two lesser known films starring undersung noir heavyweight John Garfield
In a better world John Garfield would be better and more warmly remembered than he remains to modern audiences. An actor of both intensity and risk in an age of Hollywood where such virtues seldom paid off, his electrifying screen presence – part iconoclast, part everyman, part unrepentant hood – directly presaged and influenced later bad boy leading men including Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino, and later (and especially) Mickey Rourke and Nicholas Cage.
Though first coming to widespread media attention before World War II in the 1938 melodrama Four Daughters, with the war’s end Garfield’s career went into overdrive, with more and bigger screen appearances in better films including The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and We Were Strangers (1949). Yet as with so many of his contemporaries, his work during and immediately before the war years remains scattershot and varied, with hidden gems nestled alongside less-accomplished efforts that perhaps haven’t remained remembered for good reason.
1940′s prison drama Castle On The Hudson offers a good example of such mid-level filmmaking. Directed by Anatole Litvak from a script based on Lewis E. Lawes’ memoir 20,000 Years In Sing Sing (adapted once already, in a 1932 Spencer Tracy vehicle of the same name), the routine plot and somewhat formulaic characterizations drag the film down even while Garfield’s intensity struggles to boost it above the average. Garfield isn’t alone in turning in a solid performance, which also helps, but like the convicts they play the standout performances are outnumbered and outgunned by the take-no-chances script.
Up and coming gangster Tommy Gordon (Garfield) stages a payroll robbery in which a security guard is accidentally killed. Given a muffed defense by his reptilian attorney (Jerome Cowan), he’s sent to prison expecting a short, comfortable stay courtesy of the gang bosses. But warden Walter Long (Pat O’Brien) won’t stand for it, setting fire to the bearer bonds offered as payoff and sending Gordon to three months in solitary. Gordon sweats out the time alone, going half-crazy but relenting to the prison’s absolute authority; it’s up to Garfield to convey this without chewing the scenery, which he does capably.
Gordon later, and somewhat inexplicably, earns a grudging respect for the tough-but-fair warden after a breakout attempt by a college-educated inmate (Burgess Meredith) ends in disaster. Whether because the scenes have been imitated so many times since, or because each scene is a virtual photocopying of the earlier Tracy version, the breakout and its eventual playout have a rote feel to them, with little to generate suspense besides the tenacious commitment of the actors. It’s also typical of the script’s morality that Burgess’ character’s breakout is motivated by a desire to help his wife give birth. (The rigors of jail aren’t enough to gain sympathy; something homier, it seems, was necessary for the audience to go along.)
When Gordon learns that his girlfriend (Anne Sheridan) lies near death after a fall from a car, he’s given an “honor furlough” by Long to visit her for one day. “I’ll come back if it means the chair,” Gordon tells the warden, but a confrontation with his lawyer (whose advances caused the girlfriend’s fall) leaves Gordon in an airtight frame for murder. The rest of the plot circles around efforts to free him before he’s sent to the electric chair, with all the hand-wringing melodrama that that plot twist can muster.
Garfield brings his effortlessly swaggering confidence, making what might have been a shrill tyro into something at once charismatic and foolish. Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, best known for his work in Westerns, is appealing as a lunkheaded con also headed for the electric chair, and Meredith especially overachieves as the wild-eyed jailbreak mastermind; he almost keeps up with Garfield, though not quite, and his death sequence drives the film’s most suspenseful moments.
Still, they’re evenly balanced by the blandness of O’Brien and Sheridan’s solemnly pious turns, and by an ending seemingly inspired more by running out of film than a conclusion of story. In more daring hands the film might have amounted to more, though perhaps not quite, and making a contentious statement was the last thing on its mind, anyway. Litvak and Garfield re-teamed the following year, on the far superior Out of the Fog.
Garfield’s films improved steadily over the next several years, with starring roles in The Sea Wolf and Tortilla Flat giving his filmography literary credibility while adventures like Flowing Gold and Dangerously They Live accentuated his action star bankability. 1943′s The Fallen Sparrow combined the two sides of his career into an uneven if often thrilling showcase for his fluorishing dramatic chops.
Following years in a fascist prison camp in Spain, John McKittrick (Garfield) comes to New York to investigate the death of a police detective childhood friend. The friend helped him escape the Nazis, it seems, even if McKittrick is still severely rattled by years of sensory deprivation and torture. Returning to the elite social circles he knew before his service (a clumsy bit of backstory splicing explains that McKittrick’s father was a tough cop who got rich), he exploits his old friends’ sympathy to cozy up to the wheelchair-bound refugee Dr. Skaas (Walter Slezak) who’s preparing a study on modern torture methods. A series of plot twists allows McKittrick to suspect the doctor figured prominently in his friend’s death.
As his investigation unfolds McKitrick finds he’s still pursued by his old captors for information they never managed to break out of him, and that his old society friends – including his friend’s cousin (Martha O’Driscoll) and his ex-girlfriend (Patricia Morrison) may be in league with enemy agents. Complicating events more (as all that weren’t enough), he finds himself increasingly drawn to a storekeeper (Maureen O’Hara) who may be a shill for the enemy agents or possibly an agent herself.
Helmed by prolific silent movie director Richard Wallace, the film often bears the texture and frenetic energy of that earlier format, especially in a gripping scene in which McKittrick’s barely managed PTSD returns with a vengeance. Garfield, again, acts the hell out of the scene without going overboard, and Wallace’s juxtaposition of images raises the paranoia several notches above what was likely considered sufficient at the time. Slezak is also terrifying as the doctor who’s more voyeur than observer into the world of cruelty, and O’Hara is spiderlike in her equal parts flirtation and menace.
The script is based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, and like her better known In A Lonely Place (adapted by Nicholas Ray in 1950) issues of sexual identity and reliance on substance abuse both figure heavily into the characterizations’ subtext. McKittrick responds to the doctor’s descriptions of torture with effeminate body flourishes and gesticulations, and remains too quick to retreat into drunken fogs to compensate for his self-doubt. Meanwhile Skaas’ feigned infirmity is an unsubtle cue for concealed sexual domination that, once revealed, leaves the hapless McKittrick frozen in terror. O’Hara, her hair pulled tautly back to reveal her masculine facial structure, makes an effectively predatory foil for Garfield’s roiling emotions, calm when he’s emotional and wavering whenever he grows determined.
Ultimately, Wallace can’t find a balancing point between all that text and subtext, and much of the third act – in which everything ought to get stripped away to its essence, as Ray did in his own Hughes adaptation - is short-changed in favor of resolutions that abet the war effort. McKittrick gets his nerve back on the turn of a dime, returning at the end of the film to assist his old brigade’s re-formation. Skaas is dispatched handily, and O’Hara’s spy is taken into unimpeachable police custody. It’s a clean conclusion for a film that couldn’t get too dirty but does its best anyway, with Garfield the first one fearlessly wading into the psychological mire.
- Michael Kabel