A few weeks ago Friday Noir reviewed the wonderful, heartbreaking Body and Soul, one of the great sports dramas of its or any generation. It stars John Garfield, among the most under-appreciated actors of his time. The issue stems less from cinephiles aimlessly arguing that he was not as talented as many claim, but rather that, due to his untimely demise at the tender age of 39 years, his limelight was cut much too early. As one of the primary targets of the House of Un-American Activities and its Red Scare witch-hunt in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Garfield stood tall in the face of adversity. Nevertheless, he had a weak heart, and in 1952, after playing some rounds of tennis despite doctor’s orders, he passed away in the night of May 20th to 21st. As such, his stamp on Hollywood was not as large as the Boggarts, Stewarts, or Grants of the world, but virtually anyone that has seen at least one of his movies has come to recognize his sheer talent. This week, the column takes a look at his final on screen performance in He Ran All the Way.
Nick Robey (John Garfield) lives with his cranky, cantankerous mother (Gladys George) in a rundown apartment complex in the big city. No job, no money, no hope, he is seduced into partaking in a small time robbery by a slimy bugger acquaintance of his (Norman Lloyd). He and his partner get their hands on the loot, but fail to make an escape without alerting the police. In the hustle and tussle of the chase, Nick’s partner in crime is severely wounded and Nick, in a panic, kills a cop. He spends the afternoon hiding at the public swimming pool, where happenstance sees that he and the young, impressionable Peg Dobbs (Shelley Winters) cross paths. They take a bit of liking to each other, prompting Nick to “walk Peg home.” Once sequestered, his paranoia gets the better of him, whereupon he holds ransom Peg and her family (Wallace Ford, Selena Royle, and Bobby Hyatt) until he can make a getaway.
He Ran All the Way predominantly transpires in a single location; the apartment rented out by the Dobbs’. From about the 15 minute mark to just about the film’s final frames, much of the heated, complicated drama boils within the walls of what, up until Nick’s arrival, had been a peaceful setting. The Dobbs’ are a good natured lot, demonstrating much love to one another as can be attested by the couple scenes when Peg and Nick arrive but just before the latter sees his touch guy persona overwhelm him. Even though the majority of the action is limited to the apartment, the opening sequence is just as crucial to setting up what follows. It is clear that Nick is a loser in many respects. Not that there is anything wrong per say with living with one’s mother, but in his case, at his age (the film never reveals the character’s age, but Garfield surely isn’t playing a 20-year old. Not at 38) and with his precarious financial status, life has given him the shaft. His relationship with mother dearest is a trying one. She doubtfully enjoys having him around, nor does he, visibly, appreciate her hospitality. Each basically reciprocates the other’s hostility.
Compounding matters further is Nick’s temperament. He is by no means one’s typical gangster. Nay, the film’s central figure is an unhappy salad of bitter ingredients, from being poor, having a short fuse, clearly somewhat paranoid, and probably suffering from a massive inferiority complex. Nick is the epitome of a life unfulfilled, a soul figuratively rotting away, too incompetent to get himself out of a fix (or find a job), but equally inept at facing life like an adult. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes several days after Nick has overtaken the Dobbs domain, he actually makes a brilliant turkey supper for them, a misplaced gesture of goodwill. What’s more, he offers the olive branch in genuine fashion, truly believing that he isn’t behaving as shamefully as he actually is. When the family refuses to give in to his affections, the hoodlum is taken aback, reverting to his aggressive side by threatening to murder the father on the spot. It speaks a great deal to Nick’s psychology, the fact that he doesn’t really understand how to operate basic things like human dynamics. This is a troubled man, but more critically, a troubled man that can’t grasp the very problems that plague him. Everything must surely be other people’s fault.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Peg, played with terrific precision by Shelley Winters. While Garfield doesn’t look to be playing a young person, Winters, 31 years of age at the time, is evidently playing a women in her early twenties. Peg is by no means a woman of the world. Single, living with her folks, the most exciting part of her week appears to be visits to the public swimming pool. Nick’s entrance into her life shakes things up in all sorts of ways. The sinuous dynamic between her and Nick results in Peg being just as richly layered a role as Nick, only in vastly different ways. There is an attraction, but also fear. There is comfort and hope for a future, but the strain this man puts on her family keeps her from fully embracing him. It is as if Nick embodies the rush of wild emotions and dramatic beats one can experience over a lifetime, only they are compacted together in the span of a just a few days. Winters therefore has a tall task in developing Peg into a personality that goes beyond girly sheepishness. Impressionable, fascinated by Nick, Peg’s allegiances are regularly tested, with the movie’s final moments bitterly revealing exactly where her heart truly lay.
Garfield and Winters dominate virtually every scene they share. Each brings very different acting style to the proceedings, inhabiting their nuanced roles with everything they have to offer. On first glance their partnership as leading actors seems dumbfounding. There is an awkwardness to their meeting at the public pool suggesting this might be a terrible idea, not only with regards to the coming together of their characters but to the very casting. Said doubts eventually wash away, very subtly, almost imperceptibly, like a coming of personalities against the odds. The fact that the relationship remains rocky throughout the entire picture in fact anchors the dynamic even more so. Had their love been true and strong it would have been much harder to believe. As it stands, the “will they, won’t they” drama suits both the plot and the actors unique chemistry.
He Ran All the Way is not regularly mentioned as a great picture when Garfield’s filmography is broached. True enough, he starred in vastly more popular movies, whether they were hits at the time or posthumously, such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Force of Evil, and Body and Soul. Placing He Ran All the Way above them would be quite bold. Although it doesn’t feature the bravura of those other pictures, there is something sad and poignant about Garfield’s final role being that of a man hunted down by society, overcome by paranoia and down on his rotten luck. The man himself was living through extremely trying times in real life, to say nothing of his deteriorating health. While Garfield was a much finer citizen that Nick Robey could ever hope to become, both were fighters, never giving up until the bitter end. They both lived and died the same way: defiantly.