Sunday, March 03, 2013
The Fallen Sparrow (1943)
Patti from They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To is hosting a John Garfield blogathon right now in honor of the actor's 100th birthday. I haven't seen that many John Garfield pictures, mostly only in the famous ones, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, but he grows on me every time I see him in a film. I chose The Fallen Sparrow as my entry. It was a film that I had never seen, but the cast and plot appealed greatly to me. I was not disappointed.
The Fallen Sparrow concerns John "Kit" McKittrick (Garfield) who returns to New York to investigate the death of Louie Lepetino, his lifelong best friend. Police say it was an accidental death, Kit is pretty sure it's murder. And while the murder investigation is the driving motivation, there is so much more going on in this film. Kit, a prisoner of war for two years in the Spanish Civil War who had been brutally tortured, has been convalescing in an Arizona ranch/clinic for what we would now identify as PTSD. This is not idle character background to simply make Kit a very troubled soul. The torture he underwent at the hands of an unknown Nazi, what he refused to tell them during that time – that’s the real plot of the film. Murder mysteries are not really my thing, but the rest of the content of this film is right up my alley.
Because I am an absolute sucker for characters who will defend an ideal – something intangible – to the death. In this film, it is not quite an intangible, but it might as well be. We find out that Kit’s brigade killed a general who was very close to Adolf Hitler. Hitler has vowed to destroy all those responsible and to hang the brigade's battle standard on his wall. It is that battle standard’s location that Kit will die before revealing and letting the Nazis get it.
This movie moves under the guise of the murder investigation: Kit joins the wealthy, elite crowd Louie had been running with in order to identify multiple suspects – three of them beautiful women – and meet the one witness to Louie’s plunge out a window. That witness is played by Maureen O’Hara. Another of his friends is murdered and the death called suicide by the police. Kit doggedly tracks down his leads to find out who killed Louie.
But under that runs the true story. The story of a man trying to recover from two years of torture, a man who finds nothing is quite what it seems, and that he is still being manipulated. There is a psychological tale woven here, of one man trying to keep his head above water. Kit has to beat his own demons to beat the bad guys. He is haunted by memories – dripping water, the limping footsteps of the Nazi who tortured him. He fights the reoccurrences with techniques the doctors in Arizona taught him. He puts on records to drown out imagined sounds. This is where John Garfield excels. One of the things I like best about him in his portrayals is how easily he can say one thing and display something else. When his friend, Ab, asks how he’s doing nowadays, Kit tells him he’s doing great. But when Ab asks him if he hears any more noises, Kit’s body language as he says “No,” clearly means “Yes.” This movie is filled with moments like that, and if I hadn’t admired Garfield’s ability as an actor previously, this movie would have won me over. The movie continues to provide voice overs during Garfield’s episodes, which is too bad. They are unnecessary. Everything you need to know is right there in his face, and the voice overs themselves are so blunt and to the point, but alas, that’s the way it goes. It doesn’t take away from the beauty of his performance under it all.
The very first shot is of Kit is pulling a gun out of his suitcase. A moment of hesitation, and he slips it into an inner suit pocket. Then he sees his reflection in the train window, and we hear a voice over as he airs his doubts over his readiness to face the world. Sure, the voice over tells you directly what you need to know, but so does Garfield’s face. This is an unnerved but very determined man. That determination sees him through the movie, through his own problems and through those thrown at him by the antagonists of the film.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a very disturbing scene where Kit is invited in to meet a Norweigan professor, who is in the middle of telling several people how torture works. Kit’s reaction – one of revulsion but equally strong fascination – is brilliant. He doesn’t want to hear any of this, and yet, he finds himself nodding his head to Dr. Skaas’s words, understanding firsthand exactly why what the professor is telling his wealthy audience is true. John Garfield does this throughout, giving the audience a glimpse of the agony he still suffers and the willpower he uses to beat it. I really loved him in this film.
Both story lines – the murders and Kit’s torture in Spain – are, of course, intricately connected, and I liked the way everything tied together. I am also particularly fond of the way the movie ends. I thought it was a perfect way to conclude the film.
Maureen O’Hara plays Toni Donne, an enigmatic, beautiful woman who is right in the middle of the suspicious crowd of “refugees.” Kit hounds her into going out with him so he can get some information, as she is the only witness to Louie’s death, but along the way, he also falls for her, despite, or because of, her connections to the wrong side. She’s a bit of a wounded bird, much as he is, and they’re both drawn to the other. I liked her character, and how, like Kit, you want to believe her, but you’re never quite sure which side she’s on until the very end of the movie. Her mystery, her sincerity, her beauty all work perfectly here to keep her a lovely inscrutable character.
Patricia Morrison plays a beautiful old flame of Kit’s, and Martha O’Driscoll plays the sister of Kit’s friend, Ab. Both fit nicely into this film’s web of characters. Walter Slezak plays the professor, Dr. Skaas, the wheelchair bound invalid seemingly obsessed with studying man’s cruelty to man. He has a perpetual smirk beneath his genial veneer and seems to play his role with relish.
This wartime film isn’t a movie for everyone. The manipulation of Kit’s character, his traumatic past, the fact that the characters are either trying to protect or trying to destroy an ideal embodied by a "dirty old rag," won’t work for everyone. It was quite different from what I was expecting for a noir/spy/war film, but I enjoyed it immensely and would really like to own this one on DVD.