Looking at still photographs from this movie, set in post-war Paris and loosely adapted from a short story by Ernest Hemingway, I was expecting film noir. The fact that it stars great actor John Garfield, opposite French actress Micheline Presle (billed here as Prelle), added to this expectation.
However, although some scenes do have that moody, brooding quality, and the shadowy black-and-white camerawork adds to this, the film as a whole is a strange mixture of noir and sentimentality. Director Jean Negulesco and screenwriter Casey Robinson both made some great films, but in this one they seem to be caught between two stools, with flashes of brilliance in between scenes which unashamedly manipulate the emotions. As many reviews point out, the main plot is almost like a reworking of The Champ, moved from the boxing ring to the racecourse.
One of the biggest attractions of this film is the footage showing Paris in 1950. By coincidence, I’ve just seen the new film Julie and Julia, which is also set in the city around this period. But the real black-and-white footage of the post-war bars and streets has a battered quality to it which a movie made in 2009 can’t quite recapture, although that is not to say anything against Nora Ephron’s film, which I liked very much.
Garfield plays Dan Butler, a struggling jockey who is wandering round Europe winning a few races, but more often losing them to order, so that gamblers can clean up. At the start of the film he has to make a quick getaway after double-crossing a group of gamblers by winning a race he was supposed to lose – and, all through the movie, he is pursued by one of the gamblers who lost out, the heavily scarred Louis Bork (Luther Adler). Even when Dan decides to go straight as an owner-rider and not throw any more races, there is always a feeling that his fate and his past are about to catch up with him.
As he moves between seedy hotels and seedier racecourses, widowed dad Dan is accompanied by his son, Joe (Orley Lindgren), aged about 11, who tries to hero-worship him but is constantly brought up against the glaring evidence of his feet of clay. The youngster is a good actor and does everything possible with the material he is given, but my feeling is that he just has too big a part, and often his lines are too sentimental – there are too many maudlin scenes of him trying to trust his dad against all the odds. Whenever he is out of a scene, the film immediately gets more of an edge and improves, for a few minutes, until he comes back in. After seeing the film, I read an etext of Hemingway’s story, My Old Man, and, although he is not one of my favourite authors, I felt his tale didn’t have the sentimentality that is there in this movie. In the story, the boy loves his father, but is under no illusions about him, and fully recognises that he is a cheat on the racecourse.
After arriving in Paris, Dan becomes involved with nightclub singer Paule Manet (Presle), who tries to resist him, but in the end can’t. Presle is a fine singer with a smoky voice and compelling presence, and I’d say the scenes where she sings her torch songs in the club are among the best bits of the film.
There is one electrifying sequence where a drunken and heartbroken Dan – who has just put his son on a train for America – staggers into the club and watches Paule singing, as a woman in the club comes on to him, stroking his face. He then leaves the club and Paule follows him. There is a great, unsettling bit of hardboiled dialogue, when she asks him “Are you sick, Dan?” He snaps: “Yeah, I’m sick – I went to the doctor and he told me I’d got everything, cancer and TB and you. But (grabbing her face) I haven’t got you. Let me have a look at what I haven’t got.”
I thought this particular scene was bound to be taken from the Hemingway story, but I was wrong – the character of Paule isn’t even in the original tale. However, as a writer on Casablanca and another great Bogart film, Passage to Marseille, Casey Robinson could write this kind of dialogue to perfection. It’s just a shame that in this film these sorts of scenes are sandwiched in between so much tear-jerking schmaltz.
On first watching the movie, I was slightly shocked by a couple of scenes where Garfield’s character has to run in training, and can’t do it – sweating and looking grey. Knowing of his real-life heart condition, which killed him only a couple of years later, I wondered if this was a case of the studio pushing him too hard. However, reading Hemingway’s story, there is a description of Dan being unfit and sweating while running. So this is Garfield showing his brilliance as an actor – but, knowing the reality, it’s still sad to watch.