Sunday, January 30, 2011

He Ran All the Way (1951)

John Garfield's last film was He Ran All the Way. Less than a year after its release Garfield was dead at the age of 39 - due to a long-term heart condition. Garfield was one of the biggest movie stars of his time. His breakout role was in Four Daughters in 1939. The former street gang member earned a Academy Award nomination for the part and was now a movie star going into the new decade. Unable to serve in the military because of his heart, the frustrated actor instead often starred as war heroes in a number of Warner Bros. contract parts. Off screen Garfield was a founder (along with Bette Davis) of the Hollywood Canteen - a night spot offering food and shows for military members. Soldiers and sailors just needed to show up in uniform- everything inside was free to them. The 1940s was a wildly successful time for Garfield professionally - and I continue to be amazed by his roles in film noir. Always cast as a social outsider with stubborn ways, he didn't make a bad film his whole time with Warner Bros. (not to mention The Postman Always Rings Twice when he was lent out to MGM.)

In 1946, Garfield decided not to renew his contract with Warner Bros. and started his own production company (he was one of the first to do so). The strong-willed and seemingly belligerent actor made Body and Soul (boxer from the streets) and Force of Evil (a stylish Little Caesar) under his Enterprise Productions. The tone of these later works - plus his connections with liberal associates and his independence from big studios - brought him under suspicion as a possible Communist. Uncooperative with the HUAC, he began to find it hard to get movie work outside his production company in the late 40s despite his efforts to support the military during the war only a few years earlier.

After a few stinkers at major studios in the late 40s going into the 50s, his last two films are mostly forgotten but excellent. The Breaking Point is a remake of To Have and Have Not. An outstanding movie in every way. The Breaking Point manages to be superior to the original and closer to the Hemingway 30s radical novel both are based on. (As good as Garfield and Patricia Neal are as leads they couldn’t match the wattage of Bogart and whistlin' Bacall. However Breaking Point as a whole is better.)

Then there's the gritty He Ran All the Way. Like other noir that followed (The Desperate Hours is the most famous one), it's the story of a normal family trapped in their own home by a possibly lethal criminal element. The more conventional The Desperate Hours has Bogie and his gang taking over an upper-class families home. In He Ran All the Way, the hostaged family and the criminal share the same background. They're members of the same class and have the some of the same view on authority (police, newspapers and so on). The only reason Garfield's character (Nick Robey) holds them hostage is because the two-bit criminal is surrounded by police out to get him. Like a wild animal trapped in a corner he must make quick decisions with the only goal being his survival. As much as he likes (and would like to be a part of) the family he's holding hostage, Robey must survive by any means possible. The unrelenting pressure and Robey's ultimate demise almost mirror the stressful last couple of years of Garfield's life- though the actor wasn't actually guilty of anything. Knowing John Garfield's history makes understanding viewers feel like an old pugilist taking repeated shots to the gut when watching. As friend Abraham Polonsky (director of Force of Evil and writer of Body and Soul) once said, “He defended his street-boy's honor and they killed him for it.”

Let me get one my only negative criticism of the movie out of the way: Garfield was too old for the part. He was typecast as a “punk criminal from the streets” for almost ten years. The actor was pushing 40 by the time he made this one and I find it a bit jarring to see him as a small-time crook still living with his mother in 1950. His mother Gladys George (who admittedly looks horrible compared to Garfield) was only 13 years older than him. (North by Northwest has this beat. Cary Grant's “mother” is eight years older than the actor. In The Manchurian Candidate, Angela Lansbury is three years older than “son” Laurence Harvey.) A more age-appropriate movie for 38-year-old Garfield would have been in the film version of the Odets play The Big Knife (which he starred on Broadway when most of his film work dried up.) Then again, he played the “young boxer from the streets” in a late Broadway production of Golden Boy in 1952 the year he died. Clearly he was typecast as a “young street punk.” This doesn't take away from my enjoyment of He Ran All the Way. It just distracts from the beginning of an otherwise perfect start.

The opening of He Ran All the Way is 100-percent unfiltered noir. Waking up from a nightmare (“I was running...”) in a rat hole of an apartment, he's hassled by mother (30s glamor girl Gladys George looking like a dirty ash tray in a bathrobe.)

The dim-witted criminal - still shaken from a dream and running a fever -- meets crony Al who takes the reluctant thug on a payroll robbery that goes bust. Robey is only there to get Al a heater and be the muscle. The crime goes sour when Robey panics. With a security guard shot and his partner injured, Robey ducks police in a public pool. There he meets young Peggy Dobbs who is immediately charmed by him. Unfortunately for her and her family, her attraction to the dark, half-ugly mystery man will lead them all to a hostage standoff.

The cast is filled with familiar faces and all perform well. George as Garfield's mother, Shelley Winters seems to be a perfect fit as Peggy, and Wallace Ford is always a welcome sight.

The unrelenting menace of Franz Waxman's score delivers right from the first few frames. James Wong Howe's claustrophobic images and sweaty closeups makes a routine crime story standout from the rest. Dalton Trumbo - blacklisted for not testifying to the HUAC a few years before - and Hugo Butler both wrote under the name Guy Endure (edit: Endure was an actual writer but in this case a front for the two other writers). Trumbo - while blacklisted as one of the Hollywood 10 - wrote over 30 movies under aliases. Some of the movies are known today for being the best noir of the classic era (Gun Crazy, The Gangster and the recently revived The Prowler.) His recognizable sharp dialog is here (“Get the dandruff out of your blood!”) Even for his last movie, Garfield hired from a small pool of friends and I'm sure he was responsible for getting Trumbo and other banned or soon-to-be blacklisted film makers onto the project.

The most iconic image from the film is actually a spoiler for the end of the movie (also used for the cover of Andrew Spicer's book Film Noir). The still is seen over and over again - whenever an article about film noir appears online or in newspapers or magazines today. But what an ending!

He Ran All the Way is Garfield's last film and the appropriate name for a biography about the actor (written by Robert Nott.) Garfield's last movie comes highly recommended but this independent film is not easily seen. It airs occasionally on TCM. The film is not on DVD in the US but the simple crime drama oozing film noir is available on a Region 2 DVD.

Written by Steve-O


  1. Garfield e Winters! Fantásticos!

  2. Steve-O...thanks so much for featuring this film. What a great Noir and Garfield's performance is wonderful. Love the dysfunctional dialog between the son and mother at the start and the arrival of the car and the wet and mean streets of LA at the end. George

  3. "... dirty ashtray in a bathrobe." I may forget a lot as time goes on, but that description I'll take with me to my rocking chair on the front porch.

  4. n Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I grew up in and still live I saw a lot of Robey-like hoods in their forties still living with their folks and going no where--alcoholics or drug addicts--so I don't see that as a factor to distract me from the enjoyment of the film. John Garfield was the best actor of the forties.

  5. "He Ran All The Way" is actually Garfield's best film (although my favorite is "The Postman Always Rings Twice" with Lana Turner). Garfield nails it: a young punk from the streets with nowhere to go but desperately trying to get there. His girlfriend shoots him ("I thought you loved me") and he dies in the gutter. Great ensemble acting. Being a gritty film noir, it does get depressing at times though, so it's not for the kiddies.

  6. on tcm early morning june 20, 2012


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