“A man alone ain’t got no chance.” — John Garfield as Harry Morgan in The Breaking Point (1950)
Garfield reenacted Hemingway’s hero in The Breaking Point, affirming: “I think it’s the best I’ve done since Body & Soul. Better than that”. His chemistry with Patricia Neal is immensurable, although during the shooting Garfield reminded her offhandedly she played a whore in the picture.
Reading He Ran All The Way: The Life of John Garfield (2004), a biography penned by Robert Nott with a special emphasis in Garfield’s filmography and the ’50s witchhunt that would seal his fate abruptly, we come to understand the normalcy and humanity behind a film icon when separated from his Hollywood proscenium.
Organized in 20 chapters, Nott’s book is a passionate journey through Golden Hollywood’s sieves and simultaneously a cautionary tale.
John Garfield (1913–1952), son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle on the Lower East Side of New York City. He started working for the Group Theater (where he’d establish a lasting friendship with playwright Clifford Odets) before gaining a contract with Warner Bros. “I suppose it was a fifty-fifty chance -Sing Sing or Hollywood”, Garfield once boasted. “He wasn’t that tough. He was a really nice kid. A loner,” recalled classmate Michael J. Coppola. All of his close friends always called Garfield “Julie.”
His subdued acting style and expressive eyes turned him into a noir icon who merged romantic gloom and sensuality in his doomed, ingenuous persona. Robert Sklar described Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield as the major “city boy” actors of the Golden era.
Garfield played falsely accused outsiders in They Made Me a Criminal (1939) and Dust Be My Destiny (1939), callous gangsters in Castle on the Hudson (1940), East of the River (1940), and Out of the Fog (1941), and emotionally scarred veterans in The Fallen Sparrow (1943) and Nobody Lives Forever (1946).
His most celebrated role was Frank Chambers, the drifter in classic noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), who embodied the rootless Depression-era hobo, impelled by his attraction to Cora (Lana Turner) into murdering her new American husband. As Mark T. Conrad wrote of Tay Garnett’s film adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel: “It has the feeling of disorientation, pessimism, and the rejection of traditional ideas about morality”. Other important Garfield’s films included The Sea Wolf, Tortilla Flat, Destination Tokyo, Humoresque, Pride of the Marines, and Gentleman’s Agreement.
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.”
“Garfield, whose training, whose past were the environment of the romantic rebellion the depression gave birth to, became a public target for the great simplifiers,” said Polonsky. These simplifiers were Parnell Thomas, McCarthy, Cohn, Edgar Hoover, and the rest of the HUAC scourges.
“Force of Evil was pivotal,” wrote Eddie Muller in Dark City: The Lost World of Noir, and “invites present-day viewers to connect the dots between Ben Tucker — Morse’s corrupt ally — and the corporate raiders of contemporary Wall Street. No artist exemplified the naturalist approach more than John Garfield. More than thirty years separated Body & Soul and Raging Bull, but the philosophical left hook remained the same.” “Force of Evil never died,” Polonsky said in the early 1990’s.
Time Out magazine reviewed Garfield’s performance as a conflicted pugilist in Body & Soul by Robert Rossen (enhanced by James Wong Howe’s brilliant cinematography) as “social criticism disguised as noir anxiety.” Julie Garfield noted similarities between her father in real life, who refused to betray his colleagues two years after Body and Soul: “It’s so strange that he made this film. He [too] didn’t sell out.”
John Garfield’s beginnings were as dramatic as his final days: he’d suffered a hard-up childhood; he’d contracted typhoid fever (which caused him irreparable heart damage); he’d lived a short period of vagrancy hitchhiking, freight-hopping (Preston Sturges conceived the film Sullivan’s Travels after Garfield’s adventures). Garfield made his Broadway debut in 1932, in a play called Lost Boy.
His first film, Four Daughters (1938) by Michael Curtiz, was a big hit and Garfield received an Oscar nomination. He’d received a second nod for Body & Soul (1947).
James Naremore recounts the leftist origins of film noir in More than Night: Film Noir In Its Contexts: “most of the 1940’s noir directors — Orson Welles, John Huston, Edward Dmytryk, Jules Dassin, Joseph Losey, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, Nicholas Ray — were members of Hollywood’s committed left-wing community. Dashiell Hammett, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler were Marxists, and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain were widely regarded as social realists.”
Garfield stated, “The trouble is liberalism is unpopular today and anybody who is for the underdog gets labeled a red.” But he wouldn’t move to Europe. “He was a deep American guy,” John Berry said. “As John Garfield he was a big symbol of the American dream.” Robert Whitehead (theatrical producer) agreed: “He was truthful, naïve and dead-on honest.” This political paranoia cut off John Garfield’s career. “He never lived long enough to become an icon like Humphrey Bogart,” said David Heeley, one of the producers of The John Garfield Story on TCM. Garfield “was being loyal to people, not to a place, a country, a Constitution,” wrote Archer Winston.
Garfield confided to Robert Blake that not having been able to play Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy on film was “one of the biggest heartbreaks of my career.” “I’m not the kind of actor that becomes a star in Hollywood,” Garfield confessed, “I would normally have been a character actor, but Mike Curtiz made me a star in Four Daughters.” Strangely, Garfield had missed the possibility to play one mythical role, Stanley Kowalski, which skyrocketed Brando’s profile (Brando’d mutter, “They should have gotten John Garfield” during A Streetcar Named Desire‘s rehearsals).
Robert Nott concludes his riveting illustration of John Garfield’s invaluable significance in film history: “He embodied a fatalistic sense of cool long before Mitchum, Dean or McQueen did. From always admiring Garfield as an actor, I came to admire him as a human being for his simplicity and honesty. He made the attempt. He both succeeded and failed. In the end, he probably felt like one of his screen characters, caught up in a noir scheme that he didn’t understand and couldn’t escape.”
Maybe Garfield couldn’t escape, but he never hid from himself, and he ran all the way looking for a dignified exit.