He Ran All the Way (John Berry, 1951)

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.

He Ran All the Way 2John 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:

John Garfield and Shelley Winters

John Garfield and Shelley Winters

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.

The swimming scene where Nick and Peggy meet

The swimming scene where Nick and Peggy meet

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.   

A staircase steeped in noir shadows

A staircase steeped in noir shadows

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.

John Garfield and Selena Royle

John Garfield and Selena Royle

He Ran All the Way 6

Hiding out at the swimming pool

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20 thoughts on “He Ran All the Way (John Berry, 1951)

  1. “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.”

    Judy it’s amazing how the nefarious political crisis of the time was actually seen in this final John Garfield film. Sorry to say I have not seen it, though I revere Garfield and have watched most of his works. A thoroughly engaging read and beautifully written review. Great point about mothers being blamed (Margaret Wycherly in WHITE HEAT is indeed an excellent reference point) and persuasive reference points that include PUBLIC ENEMY and further points from WHITE HEAT. I am definitely interested in seeing this.

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    • Sam, thanks so much for the kind words and I’m sure you would like this one – it has fantastic moody cinematography by James Wong Howe. It does seem as if Garfield quite often shares the ‘mother’s boy’ thing with Cagney – I’ve just seen a little-known Garfield film, ‘Between Two Worlds’ (a war-time fantasy about people on a ship to heaven, or hell), which has a strong element of this even though it seems a bit incongruous in that film. Thanks again.

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  2. Wow, what an incredible review, Judy! You have dissected the film so completely.

    This is a terrific movie…one of my 7 faves of his. Although Mr. Garfield’s performance in the film was fantastic, sadly, because of the HUAC hearings, his film career did not end with him “on top” as it should have!

    Great stills you included…I especially love the last one in the swim trunks!!

    Thank you for the information about Norman Lloyd. I have watched the documentary The John Garfield Story a couple times, and Mr. Lloyd speaks a bit. I couldn’t figure out why he looked familiar…now I know…St. Elsewhere. How fun to know that he is still alive…and acting!

    Thanks so much for taking part in the blogathon. This was a wonderful addition to the event…and given that it was Julie’s final film, I thought it appropriate to run on the blogathon’s final day. I’m glad to have met you through this event!

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    • Thanks so much, Patti, and thanks for organising the blogathon. This is one of my favourites out of John Garfield’s movies too. I saw when I looked up Norman Lloyd on the imdb that he has a film due out this year, ‘A Place for Heroes’ – and his earliest entry is for 1939, so an amazing career. It is a shame that Garfield’s career was so short, but he packed a lot into it. Thanks again, and I am glad to have met you too.

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  3. An excellent piece on an intriguing and intense film Judy.
    I particularly like how you focus on Garfield’s yearning for some kind of family connection, and the cack-handed way his character goes about trying to achieve this.
    One thing I felt when watching the movie was that while Garfield’s character does elicit some viewer sympathy, mainly due to one’s inherent tendency to side with the hunted, there’s a powerful element of cowardice about him too. What I mean is that he has no hesitation playing the big man around the hostage family yet lacks the courage to take his chances on the streets. The really strong character in the movie was Wallace Ford’s father – putting the safety of his family above everything.
    I was also very impressed by Shelley Winters, who played off Garfield very well.

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    • Thank you very much, Colin. ‘Cack-handed’ is right – trying to force people to like you at gunpoint is never very likely to work. I do feel that Garfield’s character is frightened all through the film, as of course are the family he is terrorising – and I can see that he does make himself feel better at times by lording it over them, or at least by trying to. I think the mother is strong too, not physically, but in the way she holds on to her sense of the family, and in the end she is the one who goes to the police. Must agree that Shelley Winters is very good in this and that her acting style works well with Garfield – I haven’t seen much of her work but will look out for more.

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  4. Yet I’m a noir fan, the plot givese chills: it’s better to watch it by daylight! I loved the comparisons with White Heat, since I’m a huge James Cagney fan.
    Greetings!

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    • Hi Le, glad to hear you are also a fan of James Cagney as well as Garfield. I’ve just been starting to get more interested in noir films recently and have a lot still to see! Thanks for the comment!

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  5. Indeed, this is a terrific review, Judy! I liked how you compared Garfield’s Nick in this to the Bogart and Sinatra roles in their respective hostage dramas. Garfield was really good at displaying vulnerability beneath the tough facade, and seems well-chosen to play such a conflicted criminal. I’m not a Shelley Winters fan AT ALL, but your remarks about her plain, everyday quality being a good fit for the material rather than a more glam actress are convincing. And Howe’s cinematography for this looks amazing.

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    • Thanks, Jeff, much appreciated. I’d be interested to see how other actors handle similar roles in the other hostage films made around this period. I do agree that Garfield is good at vulnerability beneath the toughness. I haven’t seen enough of Shelley Winters’ work to say if I like her in general or not, but I do think she is good in this and her character’s quietness makes a strong contrast with Garfield. And Howe’s cinematography impresses me more with every film of his that I see.

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  6. Terrifice piece Judy – Yes, this is one of Garfield’s top ranking films close to greatness to BODY & SOUL and FORCE OF EVIL. I like your point about Winters looking plain looking. That same year, she did a similar thing in portraying a plain woman in A PLACE IN THE SUN. Of course, compared to Liz Taylor almost anyone would look plain. BTW – John Berry also did an interesting film noir with Audrey Totter called TENSION. if you ever get the chance be sure to watch if you have not seen it already.

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    • John, I haven’t seen ‘A Place in the Sun’ but hope to do so and will also look out for the other John Berry film you recommended. Must agree that this is one of Garfield’s finest films – I also think ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ is another great one. Thanks very much!

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  7. I love this film and have seen it more than once! It’s one of those that I could easily watch over and over. Your review of it was wonderful…so true about Shelley Winters and, like another commenter mentioned, she did play a plain Jane so well in A Place in the Sun also.

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    • Thank you, Victoria – I will hope to see ‘A Place in the Sun’ soon. Definitely agree ‘He Ran All the Way’ is a film worth repeated viewings.

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    • Vienna, I’ve only just seen ‘Between Two Worlds’ during this blogathon – I did like most of it and think Garfield is great in it, though I think the film falls off a bit in the last 20 minutes or so. I hope you enjoy ‘He Ran All the Way’, which as you can tell I love! Thanks so much for your comment.

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  8. Judy, a typically insightful post from you, on a film that plainly made a big impression on you. I like the way you placed it in the context of films with a similar situation like “The Desperate Hours.” I was also most impressed with your analysis of Garfield’s character as he “constantly veers between the criminal he is and the nicer man he could have been.” In this kind of film, the hostage-taker is generally portrayed as purely evil, but here Garfield gives both sides of his character equal emphasis, and I think that makes this film unique among movies of its type. He was very good at suggesting greater psychological subtlety to his characters than often was in the script.

    I also thought you did a fine job discussing family dynamics–the appeal of Peggy’s stable family for someone with Nick’s bad family experiences. Shelley Winters was very effective conveying Peggy’s frustration at being stuck at home and working in a dead-end job, thus explaining the appeal of Nick. He offers escape from a humdrum existence, although in the end she learns the truth behind the old “careful what you wish for” maxim.

    All in all, a great post on a film I’m sure any Garfield fan who hasn’t yet seen would find essential, not only as his last film, but as further proof of his skill at making well-worn character types seem fresh.

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    • R.D., thank you very much for your stimulating thoughts on this film. I do wonder if the hostage-taker in ‘The Desperate Hours’ might have seemed a bit more sympathetic on stage when played by a much younger actor (Paul Newman) than Bogart in the film, but anyway must agree that he is an evil figure in Wyler’s movie. I like your description of Peggy’s character and her frustration with her humdrum existence – and your point about Garfield ‘making well-worn character types seem fresh’. He had played a lot of ‘bad boy’ types over his career, and yet this one still seems different from those who had gone before. Thanks again!

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