Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Drowned Phoenician Sailor and his Mermaid Muse: HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951)

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Harke now I heare them, ding-dong, bell.
Sometimes a movie would slip right by you if not for the recommendation of some critic willing to stand up for it and urge you to look deeper, to look--as Godard once did--for Shakespeare in Monogram westerns. You may get disillusioned if you look for Shakespeare in all Monogram westerns, so you need a Cahiers du Cinema writer to give you a name, like Edgar G. Ulmer.  Hearing someone express unabashed love for certain actors, movies, or directors is very gratifying in an age when clueless managing editors stifle the path forward for many critics, like a herd of cattle being driven into the same narrow gate.  Good journalists and critics don't need fences - they know the terrain. Such a glorious confessor and herald and thrower downer is Sunset Gun's own Kim Morgan. Naturally I was thrilled to see her featured on TCM's Critic's Choice this month, curating two films, SOMETHING WILD (1961, starring Carroll Baker) and 1951's HE RAN ALL THE WAY, starring John Garflield. She writes on the latter:
Mr. Garfield. In my mind, one of the first method actors (he trained in the famed Group Theater and worked with Clifford Odets), he was also victim to one of cinema's darkest, most shameful moments when the left-wing, progressive actor (and patriotic actor, he helped created The Hollywood Canteen for heaven's sake) testified at the scabrous House Un-American Activities Committee, who suspected him and certain colleagues, Communist. Unlike many other actors, writers and directors (including one of his former directors, Elia Kazan), Garfield refused to name names. As both a once young street tough and a man of principle, Garfield would not rat. Not surprisingly, work was then harder to come by and at the young age of 39, Garfield died of coronary thrombosis. Many speculate an already present heart condition was worsened by the stress caused by the House's inquisition. I think this assumption is correct. His mislabeling and death is so tragic that it angers me to this day.

I needed Kim's guidance, because Garfield has always annoyed me or barely registered as a short streetwise blowhard, a kind of grown-up Bowery Boy, reminding me of guys I didn't like in High School, which I freely admit is not his fault, and frankly, as a child especially, method acting just seemed dull and self-important. Again, that's where good critics come in, steering through their yes towards a richer appreciation. Would I have ever noticed Montgomery Clift or James Dean if film history hadn't lionized them to the extreme? Would any of Clift's traits resonate in today's cinematic market, where sensitivity and subtlety and deeply-felt emotion are jettisoned in place of insincere tough guy detachment, whiny self-indulgence, ordinary hunk blandness, homophobic buddy comedy confessions of manly love, and larger-than-life hamminess?

Thanks to tons of books and documentaries, we know what to look for in a Dean or Clift performance. We know to look deeper into a Clift's sensitive eyes than we might for a normal actor, because we know it's going to be worth it,  like slowing down to appreciate a bottle of really good vintage wine rather than just gulping it down like you do with your usual Saturday night box of zinfandel. If you didn't slow down, it wouldn't taste much different.

Garfield's last film-- and one written by Dalton Trumbo (a fellow blacklist victim), HE RAN ALL THE WAY operates from a standard 'hoodlum on the lam takes family hostage' plot that's a solid front for a sorrowful blacklist subtext. Within the first few minutes we've already learned that Garfield's character has a bossy, self-centered mother and one very bad-influence friend who drags him along as muscle on petty theft jobs. A payroll robbery at a garage goes sour, Garfield ends up shooting a cop, and his 'run' is on. Hiding out at the community pool, he runs all the way into the perfect cover, a dowdy blue collar broad (Shelly Winters) trying to learn how to swim, and eager to fall into the arms of a well muscled 'teacher.'

All gangster romances generally seem to involve a polarized split feminine, the glamorous femme fatale and the  virtuous, allegedly homely girl who wants to reform the antihero and is so pretty that even their plain makeup and ugly hair can't disguise her. But it's not often that we see the reverse of the typical noir equation, the homme fatale putting the moves on a genuinely homely girl, one who in this case is not even rich, merely needy and convenient. It's a precious rarity to see these situations in any film --you can count them off in one hand: A PLACE IN THE SUN, LOLITA, SUSPICION, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, THE HEIRESS, and maybe recently IN THE COMPANY OF MEN. Any guy who's ever dated someone they liked well enough but never wanted to be seen in public with, never wanted their guy friends to know about, has an investment in a film like this. After all, these situations happen a lot, especially around four AM in bars, or on the slicker internet dating sites like Lord knows we need more movies like this. For the playas.

Of the less attractive stars in old Hollywood, Winters had it hardest but worked longest. She could never just blind you with DARK VICTORY wit and class like the similarly snaggle-toothed Bette Davis, or scare you into submission like the similarly coarse Joan Crawford, and Olivia de Havilland could only ever meet plainness about halfway, despite her lavender drubbings by the Oliviers and Clifts. So, almost by default, Winters landed all the 'easy' lay/dumb braying broad roles. Her characters knew they weren't beauty queens--or very bright, or graceful, or stylish--and though they had a bad case of the ugly tunnel vision that can result from being ignored by all the boys at every dance, Winters infused them with a warm vulnerability that made you as a man kind of imagine-- well,  maybe not sleeping with her or flirting with her, but having already slept with her and now desperately trying to get back to the keg before you sober up any further, and yet wanting, despite your best judgments, to keep the bridge only half-burned.

Note the open eyes right on water level as Garfield clocks the cops. That's fucking acting!
A simple analysis of HE RAN could see it as the gangster version of getting to know your in-laws, an Italian or Jewish neighborhood kid moving in on a working class Irish-American family of limited but comparatively affluent means. The central family in HE RAN acts happy, but a Nicholas Ray-level streak of poison runs through them. This is a family that has to announce how happy they are, but they're also perfectly willing to leave their daughter alone in the apartment with a stranger while they go off to the movies, indicating this is the first man she's ever brought home so they don't know protocol. But more than 'happy' they're just Irish martyrs --eventually miserable, and unaccommodating to their doomed house guest, more out of fear and Catholic guilt rather than it being the 'right' thing to do. Their dour refusal to eat the chicken Garfield provides makes it seem less a matter of deep family pride and more that an angry censor is standing on the other side of the room, his clipboard and pen more threatening than Garfield's gun, demanding the family display their disgust at their guests' recent criminal past at least three times for every moment Shelly buckles under his heavy charisma. And even as all through the film Garfield tries his best to ingratiate himself, to be accepted, they still refuse him even basic courtesy. Haven't they ever heard of Stockholm syndrome? He's not a tenth as needy as Shelly. I'd be helping disguise him as a Hasidic rabbi within a few minutes of that tasty chicken dinner! Hmmm mmm!

So even though after the incredibly suspenseful first 1/4,  HE RAN ALL THE WAY wanders away from its noir connections and into the sparsely furnished blue-collar method-acting Chayefsky-Kazan-Schulberg-Fink chamber drama, Garfield's eye view reigns over. He's complex! We're allowed to see him through Shelly's eyes: one minute we want to fix this wild bird's broken wing, then he snaps at us and we know he's still far from house-trained.  He's sensitive yet cold-blooded; a terrified kid trying to joke and make friends on his first day of school, and getting the airs and high hat for his trouble, so then Columbining them all the next day.

Maybe that's all just my reading too deep into it, due to the fact that I never much cottoned to Wallace Ford (he plays the dad) especially in corned beef cliche's like his snarky reporters and his John Fordian Irish-American working stiffs. It's like he's the poor man's Jimmy Cagney, and he mistook Cagney's punchy energy for rote 'snappiness' and know-it-all smarm. Nothing personal against Ford, but I wanted Garfield to shoot him.At the same time, Wallace does very well here, acting-wise. Every heroic decision he makes is second-guessed by the women in the family, and he's so roped in by 'the right thing to do' and 'family above all' that he practically chokes to death, like the gangster from THE COOK, THIEF WIFE AND THE LOVER was force feeding him all 24 pages of the production code.

Would this family's cold shoulder be warmed-up if Garfield was Irish and his mother went to their same church? I doubt it. Any sensible middle class New York family would just charge Garfield a 1/3 of his stolen money, in exchange for food and shelter, ala THIEVES LIKE US. I say screw them and their banal 'common folk' decency (1). I'd like to get that Ford enrolled in a Cultural Studies course with Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn and let him get wise to how all that 'good honest folks' prattle was invented by rich fat cats to keep him and his blue collar Irish brethren docile and productive! And you know that commie intellectual Trumbo had just such an education in mind!

So though all the ingredients are in place for a confirmation of 'American family values,' count on Trumbo to take the censor-approved ingredients of a nutritious but tasteless leftover stew and deliver instead a chicken dinner with a cookie full of arsenic for desert. Even though  the 'old-time' extended Norman Rockwell style family (dad wearing suspenders and reading the paper, mom in the kitchen, junior with freckles)--once mocked by wits like Ben Hecht, Charles Brackett, and Charles Lederer--is in the end made to win, Trumbo makes sure we're allowed to at least come away still rooting for our disillusioned wild pterodactyl of an anti-hero, John Garfield.

Garfield's performance here is so good that it accumulates in power as the movie progresses: Garfield doesn't just push Shelly and her dad around in the haphazard way Warner Brothers used to have with gangster violence (2), he grapples with them like a man trying to claw his way out of a prison of soft Irish working class flesh. Imagine James Dean's anguish mixed with Jimmy Cagney's boxer grace and Brando's stray bullet ricochet savagery (ala his table clearing or radio tossing scenes in STREETCAR), and then use all that to reverse the stairway trajectory of Jimmy Stewart pushing around Kim Novak for the final VERTIGO freakout... right? That's fucking awesome? Genius!! You don't even worry for Shelly's safety, for she is not frail.

I think its not unnatural to compare Wallace Ford's righteous Irish father with Joseph McCarthy, and read the whole thing as a stealth razzing of an uncaring, terrified 1950s conformist landscape. So damn you, Joe McCarthy. It's you who should have been shot down like a rabid foaming dog in the gutter, not this angel of poetic realism and punchy gravitas named John Garfield.

I recently moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, and my new address happens to be 203 Garfield Place! No one can tell me it's not named after you, Johnny! Johnny, they shot you down in the street because you wouldn't rat on your friends. But thanks to Kim Morgan, and TCM, you do yet live! Now we can savor scenes like the one above, where Garfield thinks his stolen money's been re-stolen from his locker and he spasms out in a panic attack so wrenching its like he wraps all the panic of THE BICYCLE THIEF up in five seconds.

The way Garfield hides in that pool, and tries to wrestle with his lack of worldly smarts as the clock ticks out made me think of those lines from Shakespeare's Tempest, that Eliot used in The Wasteland which I reprinted up top of this post.

Translated - Kim Morgan is the sea nymph, and the sea-change suffered is not into coral and pearls, but the pearly stuff of celluloid. The something rich and strange is the new perspective over time that film history can provide us with. Uniquely modern, world-class and ahead of his time, Garfield's art is so pure it can seem to rest full fathom five, can be hard to see without sea nymphs and fairies to point out where it lies. But like that coral, Garfield's films aren't going anywhere, and if anyone's soul can be said to endure eternally anew in the briny nitrate depths of Hollywood film, it's his.

(1) The production code had strict views about glorifying gangsters, or inferring anyone could ever shelter them and be anything but a louse, unless of course they sulked like little bitches, and gangsters were all but required to die in the gutter or in a fireball explosion by the end.
(2) Bogart, for example, God love him, never really threw a convincing blow (i.e. that kick he gives Geiger's shadow in THE BIG SLEEP), or even tried, to, not that it mattered, because he was such a good actor you still shuddered in fear every time he moved, his energy and malevolence before and after a punch were so intense the punch itself barely needed to happen, i.e. as the  abusive screenwriter IN A LONELY PLACE.,


  1. In Thomas Pynchon's latest novel, Inherent Vice the main character (a circa 1970 hippie gumshoe) is a huge John Garfield fan.
    He mentions this movie on page 254.
    Not sure why I felt the need to share that (well, I did love the book) but there it is.

  2. Fans of John Garfield might be interested in also checking out music video of a folk song about John Garfield from the early 1980s, "Ballad of John Garfield," that was recently posted on following youtube link:


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