John Garfield was the first "rebel" actor in film history, opening the door for all the other cinematic anti-heroes: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, etc. Garfield's more obscure name must be rescued for the next generation's cinephiles and screenagers.
In They Made Me a Criminal (1939) by Busby Berkeley, Garfield plays champion boxer Johnny Bradfield. While in a drunken stupor, his manager kills a reporter and frames Johnny for the murder, so he has to take refuge on a farm. There he meets Peggy (played by Gloria Dickson, who allegedly had an affair with Garfield) and the Dead End Kids.
Garfield went independent, founding Enterprise Productions, playing the lead in two films that supported his social views: Robert Rossen’s boxing noir Body and Soul (1947) and Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948).
In The Breaking Point by Michael Curtiz (out on DVD this year), he played a troubled boat captain forced into smuggling to provide for his family. His final film was He Ran All the Way (1951), written by Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler and directed by John Berry, all victims of blacklisting. Garfield plays the crazed thug Nick Robey, who, desperate for a home, romances Peg (Shelley Winters).
The first decade of American film noir was affected by a faction of “Browderite” communists and “Wallace” Democrats. During the 1950s, the congressional hunts for communists in Hollywood created a kind of noir scenario for their victims. Tacitly blacklisted for his left-wing sympathies, Garfield (who had relentlessly supported U.S. troops through the Hollywood Canteen) was found dead of a heart attack.
Garfield reportedly had urged Warner Brothers to acquire the rights to Detour, which was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer in 1945. Ulmer was a member of the Frankfurt school (Dialectic of Enlightenment), of Jewish ancestry and Marxist orientation. Ulmer’s margination in the industry would anticipate John Garfield's and Abraham Polonsky's.
Abraham Polonsky was also a leftist who debuted with his masterpiece Force of Evil (1948), based on Ira Wolfert’s novel Tucker’s People, which presciently alerted against new capitalist temptations.
John Garfield plays the mob lawyer Joe Morse: “I wasn’t strong enough to resist corruption, but I was strong enough to fight for a piece of it.” Joe seduces Doris (Beatrice Pearson) promising her an imaginary jewel. Polonsky called his script "a fable from the Empire City."