Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Fallen Sparrow (1943)

John Garfield was good in all his films. Unlike Cagney, Robinson and Muni who tried to distance themselves from gangsters and crime, Garfield played the“fast-talking, tough former street kid” part for most of his career. A decade younger than the three actors mentioned he also had the luck of being one of the biggest film actors in crime thrillers during height of the classic film noir period. Cagney and Robinson were in some good film noir but their appearances in them were done reluctantly (Cagney in White Heat) or, in Robinson's case, taking on the role of a weakling (Scarlet Street) or supporting player (Double Indemnity) after his career peaked.

Garfield strength was playing intense tough-guy roles. And he must have known it because he didn't do much of anything else. No one could match Garfield's dark, tormented noir hero. Garfield's part in The Fallen Sparrow is no exception. A taut performance by Garfield in the central role is one of the only reason to see this strange and somewhat provocative movie.

Three years after The Fallen Sparrow, Garfield costarred with Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Following is a list of all his other essential noirs: Body and Soul, Force of Evil, The Breaking Point and He Ran All the Way. Nobody Lives Forever is a con man gem; and Humoresque and The Gentleman's Agreement are dramas that both have some noir qualities.

The Fallen Sparrow however, is a bit of a mess. The movie comes across as kind of a Casablanca want-to-be. The improbable story is based on the pulp by Dorothy B. Hughes. Unlike her later book In A Lonely Place-- this story isn't improved by the film.

The plot involves a son of a New York cop who returns from Spain after being held and tortured in prison for two years. The Spanish Civil war vet mysteriously escapes the prison and returns to the states to find that the man that may have helped in his escape has died. Falling from a New York City skyscraper window during a party. It also involves flags, goblets and papers that - like Casablanca - hold more power than they ever could in real life.

When Garfield bounces into a NYPD station demanding answers for his buddies death (after unconvincingly showing him staring at his reflection wondering if he has enough courage for the task) seems like a part for a cock-sure James Cagney. Later, he goes to numerous nightclubs in his best tuxedo. Chatting with Nazis and flirting with the young socialites makes it looks like Bogart's Casablanca to me. Even the movie poster makes Garfield's Kit look like Casablanca's Rick.

The movie was released in 1943 - but the story takes place in 1940--before the war. I wonder how Americans viewed a movie showing Nazis in almost plain view goose-stepping around Manhattan nightclubs? And it's unfortunate that the wheelchair-bound villain reminds me of a very uncomfortable scene in The Big Lebowski. Other things to be on the lookout for: Kit and date spending a night on the town in the dead of winter in New York City only to return to her apartment bizarrely carrying balloons and a stuffed penguin. And actress Patricia Morison's see-through dress.

What works best is seeing Garfield alone hearing dragging footsteps and water dripping. Him trying to drown out the sound of the torture that continues to haunt him long after supposedly getting cured. (See the similarities in the 1949 Brit noir Small Back Room.) Director Richard Wallace uses the soundtrack (music by RKO's brilliant Roy Webb) and camera effectively visualizing the stresses upon the former POW's fear-drenched mind.  Victims struggling in the shadows alone was something RKO film makers were known for since Val Lewton; and it works perfectly in The Fallen Sparrow too.

RKO borrowed Garfield from Warner Bros for the part. The rest of the cast is only OK. Maureen O'Hara is wooden (give me Maureen O'Sullivan any day) and miscast; and the Nazis - Walter Slezak and Hugh Beaumont look like, well, Nazis. (If Warner Bros. made this they probably would have had Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.)

The film is available on the Warner Archive but it's not looking that great - the film appears damaged and beat up.

The Fallen Sparrow is not an essential noir -- and it'd be a classic if it had a stronger story.  But it is worth seeing for Garfield some interesting work by director Wallace.

Written by Steve-O

1 comment:

  1. It doesn't remind me of Casablanca. Garfield's Kit is a freedom fighter that went to fight against fascism in Spain. More like Garfield who was progressive in his politics. This film's character comes closest to being a private detective than any other role Garfield ever played. He's very good--the closeups of his eyes, sweats and fear etched in his face--better than Cagney or Bogart (the trio are my favorite actors of that era along with Bette Davis and Gable). I agree it would have been interesting if Lorre and Greenstreet were in it. And Maureen O' Hara is the femme fatale--a different role for a goody-goody type like her.


Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley Noir.com