This is my contribution to the John Garfield centenary blogathon being organised by Patti at They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To. Please do visit and take a look at the other postings.
John Garfield’s last film is one of his greatest – yet it tends to be known more for the shadows which were gathering around him in real life than for those on screen. It was made a year before he died, at a time when the actor was being pursued just as relentlessly as his character is in the film, and it is impossible not to think about the parallels as you watch. Indeed, the whole film carries echoes of the McCarthy witch-hunt and many of those involved with it, including director John Berry and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, were being persecuted along with Garfield. However, there is a lot more to this movie than its historical/biographical context and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who admires Garfield’s better-known films noir, such as Force of Evil and Body and Soul. Sadly it hasn’t as yet had a DVD release in region 1, but I can recommend the region 2 release from Optimum, which has fine picture quality, although there are no extras – not even a trailer. (You can also find the film in segments at Youtube, but I don’t know what the quality is like. )
This is a taut, disturbing noir, with superb camerawork by the great James Wong Howe – I’m including a link to a clip of the opening, on Youtube, to give a taste. It begins in the middle of a nightmare, as the camera slowly pans into a dark, untidy room, in a long shot which finds Garfield’s character, small-time criminal Nick Robey, lying in bed, sweating and shaking. Then his mother roughly wakes him and the two go straight into a row, which is just the start of a waking nightmare lasting for the rest of the film. The title is He Ran All the Way, but for most of the film Nick has nowhere to run.
Here’s a link to a brief clip of the film’s start:
After that fight with his alcoholic mother (Gladys George), Nick goes out and meets up with his only friend, Al (Norman Lloyd), who bullies him into taking part in a payroll robbery. The heist ends in disaster, as Al is killed and Nick shoots and fatally wounds a policeman. Terrified and alone, he impulsively goes to a public pool as a place to hide out, starts to chat to swimmer Peggy Dobbs (Shelley Winters), and accompanies her home. Once he is in her family’s apartment, he ends up taking her family hostage, and can’t bring himself to leave and face the streets again. He hides and sweats, just as he lingered in bed in that opening shot. (As we mark John Garfield’s centenary, I must just mention here that Norman Lloyd, who went on to have a great career and starred in St Elsewhere, is now 98, and still working as an actor.)
He Ran All the Way is possibly the first of several films made around this period which centre on a criminal who holes up in an ordinary home and holds its family hostage, a theme which seems to encapsulate all the paranoia of the McCarthy era. The best-known of these is probably William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours (1955), with Humphrey Bogart as the central gangster, terrorising Frederic March and his wife and children. Another is Suddenly (1954), where Frank Sinatra plays one of a gang who trap a family in their home while plotting to assassinate the president. (There were also a number of less well-known films with similar storylines.) All these three feature a lead criminal played by an actor associated with more sympathetic parts, so that there could be a risk the audience’s sympathy will be torn – but the violence and bitterness of Bogart and Sinatra’s characters is such that this danger doesn’t really exist. The whole feeling of those films is on the side of the family, willing the intruders to leave before they cause even more pain and damage.
By contrast, Garfield’s character, Nick, is the focus of more sympathy, even though the film does not skate over his capacity for violence. One big difference between him and Bogart or Sinatra’s characters is that he is alone. Another is that we have seen his damaged background. Garfield was in his late 30s here – and occasionally looks his full age in a haggard close-up. Yet most of the time the character he is playing seems much younger, living at home with the mother who shouts at him and even at one point physically attacks him, giving a bleak glimpse of what his childhood must have been.
In some ways the part is a return to the boyish roles which came at the outset of Garfield’s career, like Mickey Borden in Four Daughters or the waif-like boxer Johnnie in They Made Me a Criminal, both characters in need of mothering. Despite his gangster swagger, the nervous Nick is just as lonely as they were, and just as desperate for someone to care about him. Typically, he clings to someone and then turns on them. Peggy complains at the swimming pool that he is holding on to her too tightly, and then makes the same complaint when he dances with her to the radio in the family’s front room. He appeals for her sympathy by saying that he isn’t feeling well (is he the only movie gangster who has to go and lie down after shooting someone?), and then when she touches his forehead and tells him it feels hot, he grabs her hand and says “Oh, that feels nice”. A mother’s gesture – but his real mother slapped his face earlier instead of stroking it, and, when the cops are searching her home for clues to his whereabouts, she tells them to kill him.
Mothers often tend to get the blame in gangster films for the way their sons turned out, with the most famous example of this, of course, being Cagney’s Ma in White Heat. She loves him too much, and turns him bad, whereas in this film Nick’s mother doesn’t love him enough, or at all. I don’t think it is as simple as the mother being blamed for everything here – we don’t see enough of her for that – but her harshness does make a contrast with Peggy’s close-knit, working-class family. The film gives a strong portrayal of their domestic routines and the way they struggle to go on with them despite the intruder’s presence. Indeed the whole film seems to carry an echo of an everyday story that could have happened instead, if only the violence hadn’t broken in – for instance, with a little scene where Nick politely asks for more coffee at breakfast before leaving (though, inevitably, he then decides not to leave at all).
Garfield’s character constantly veers between the criminal he is and the nicer man he could have been. In one scene he cares for the mother (Selena Royle) when she collapses, and in another he briefly hugs the young son (Robert Hyatt). He always calls the father, Fred (Wallace Ford) “Pop”. Nick clearly longs to be part of the family he is hungrily watching from outside, and there is an astonishing scene where he tries to force members of the household to eat a turkey dinner which he has prepared. They refuse and instead eat a stew prepared by the mother – until Nick orders them to eat at gunpoint. This is one of the most memorable scenes in the film and must be one of the great bad meals in cinema, up there with the notorious grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy. Scenes like this one put across the contrast between Nick’s loneliness and the family he can’t have far better than the awkward scene where Wallace Ford suddenly delivers a stilted little sermon about the joys of family life.
As with White Heat, the posters for this film suggest it is more conventional than it actually is, playing up the doomed romance element between Nick and Peggy. (I haven’t been able to find a trailer anywhere, but wonder if it was similarly misleading.) For most of the film Shelley Winters looks plain and even slightly dowdy – it is refreshing to see a fairly ordinary-looking woman as a heroine in a film like this. But there is a sequence late on where she wears a more glamorous dress and make-up. And it is these scenes which were chosen for all the posters, with wildly misleading taglines such as “Dynamite hits the screen with their kind of love!” In fact Nick and Peggy’s relationship isn’t dynamic at all – they are two lonely people who could perhaps have found happiness together if it hadn’t all been spoilt from the outset. And heroine Peggy is no femme fatale, but a quiet, dutiful daughter working in a bakery. It is suggested she doesn’t have much experience with men, as there’s a glimpse of a bespectacled neighbour who wants to show her his new record of classical music, and a female colleague complains she has had a problem finding a date for her. “I was desperate, otherwise I wouldn’t look at you twice,” grunts Garfield in one scene.
I mention the ending of the film in this next bit.
But he does look twice – and so does she. In the scene where they first meet at the swimming pool, Nick persuades Peggy to relax and let herself be carried away, and later he tries to do the same in another context, asking her to run off with him. She is tempted, but there is always an ambiguity undercutting her actions. Does she love Nick, or is she just motivated by her love for her family, and her desire to save them from him? This question builds up to the climax, which is itself ambiguous. Peggy in the end chooses her family and shoots Nick down, but then, as he staggers along the gutter fatally wounded, the car she had bought pulls up, gleaming new, suggesting that she did love him after all. Or at least she thought she did for a minute.