“I wish I knew how you wanted me to be. If only you’d tell me.”
Most fans who make their way through film noir will invariably stumble upon the tragedy of John Garfield. A remarkably naturalistic actor, Garfield was adept at taking hateable characters and humanizing them so much that their fates seemed unjust. Audiences knew he was wrong, but they couldn’t bring themselves to root for his downfall. He was one of them. If Humphrey Bogart was the patron saint of noir cool, then Garfield was the born loser, doomed to fumble the bad hand he’d been dealt.
Unfortunately, the doom that colored Garfield’s film roles bled over to his personal life. The actor was asked to speak before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, but his reluctance to testify landed him on the dubious Hollywood blacklist. Garfield was devastated by the decision, and he suffered a massive heart attack before he could regain any career momentum. He died at age 39, not far from his New York birthplace. He left behind three Oscar nominations, a slew of classics, and a death that made him all but inextricable from his screen persona.
The overlap between Garfield the man and Garfield the persona is what makes He Ran All the Way (1951) such a remarkable sendoff. It was the last film Garfield completed during his lifetime, and the plight of his character, Nick Robey, hits so close to his offscreen paranoia that one can’t tell where the performance ends and the truth begins. It’s as though he knew the clock was ticking, and saw Robey as an outlet for his tortured real-life predicament. Try as he did, the film wasn’t cathartic so much as it was prophetic.
He Ran All the Way has a stronger fatalist slant than most noir films, as evidenced by the opening scene. Robey is seen having a nightmare in his rundown apartment, and the experience leaves him reeling. He urges his partner to delay their heist on the grounds that he’s “got no luck” today, but the plea falls on greedy ears and they proceed. Robey’s dream is treated as a moment of clarity, a moment in which he could have turned things around, but the allure of quick cash proves too much to resist. Robey ignores his bout of common sense and winds up shooting a cop. Suddenly, this nobody is a wanted man.
Robey gets nearly cornered at an Amusement Park, but a chance flirtation with a woman named Peg Dobbs (Shelley Winters) gives him an out. He plays up his interest in her, and insists she invite him over for some coffee. Once inside, however, Robey’s fear takes over and he takes the entire Dobbs family hostage. It’s familiar noir territory, but the script adds a wonderful little wrinkle when Robey looks over the family newspaper. His paranoia is so strong that he gives himself away as the cop killer, when his name hadn’t even been in print. It’s a gut punch of a reveal, and one that Garfield delivers with withering self-despair. He can’t seem to catch a break.
The rest of the film takes place in the Dobbs household, with sporadic cuts to the outside. It begins to resemble a play, as characters bicker while moving in and out of the same space. Garfield shines in these lengthy scenes, casually alternating between cruelty and unexpected flashes of warmth. His character bonds with Peg’s little brother Tommy (Bobby Hyatt), and he even shares a moment of understanding with the Dobbs matriarch (Selena Royle). Conversely, he berates Peg for her looks and tosses out verbal abuse when he’s not lusting after her. The film never feels the need to categorize Robey as a bad seed or a misunderstood good guy, and it’s all the better for it. Instead, the film lets the viewer sift through his impulsive decisions and decide for themself. It’s a refreshingly modern approach and a reminder that noir’s ambiguity often allowed it to go places that other genres could not.
The doom that lingers over the film is promoted by Garfield, but he isn’t solely responsible. He Ran All the Way also benefits from the Dalton Trumbo-Hugo Butler script and the taut direction by John Berry. All three men were privy to the Red Scare that was sweeping the industry, and given their liberal views, one can’t help but place an allegorical reading on their approach to the Robey character. Robey’s crimes are not analogous to Communism, but the paranoia that was sweeping Hollywood is present in every frame, and the passing swipes at classism and American greed are commonplace in the works of Trumbo, Butler, and Berry. Not surprisingly, they would join Garfield on the blacklist by year’s end.
Robey’s premonition about being unlucky comes true when he entrusts Peg with his getaway plans. Once again, his paranoia proves his undoing. He accuses Peg of setting him up and makes a run for it, only to be cut down by the police. As he slumps down on the sidewalk, he realizes that Peg kept to her word. Too little, too late. The sequence is shot in devastatingly tight closeups, and Garfield’s pained expression is topped only by the image of his character crawling towards the headlights of a parked car. In a final, haunting moment of futility, he keels over before he can reach the light. All that’s left for noir’s patron saint is the black asphalt.
He Ran All the Way will always be a notable release by virtue of it being Garfield’s last film. The parallels between his life and his character’s predicament are innumerable, and his performance is staggering, but even without the real-life context, the film is a remarkable piece of noir storytelling. The screenplay packs an ironic punch, and the cinematography by James Wong Howe is among the finest of the time period, particularly on the back end of the film. As far as swan songs go, it doesn’t get much better.
TRIVIA: Due to the blacklisting of Trumbo, Butler, and Berry, all three men’s names were removed from the film. Their credits have since been restored.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.