Wednesday, 8 May 2019
Noir Diary # 3:
He Ran All The Way
(John Berry, 1951)
Within the grand index of blunt-poetic film noir / pulp fiction titles, I think “HE RAN ALL THE WAY” ranks as a pretty good one. Perhaps not quite up there with the abstract magnificence of ‘Blast of Silence’ or ‘Kiss Me Deadly’, but it definitely fits in nicely alongside ‘Everybody Had a Gun’ or ‘They Drive by Night’ in the “slightly more literal” category.
It’s a shame then that the film itself finds indolent small-time hood Nick Robey (John Garfield) running only as far as his nearest swimming pool, after he finds himself holding the bag when a botched payroll robbery leaves both his more experienced partner (Norman Lloyd) and a cop bleeding out somewhere behind his departing heels.
Desperately trying to concoct a short term survival strategy whilst literally treading water in the crowded public pool, Robey strong-arms himself into an uncomfortable “meet cute” situation with Peggy Dobbs (Shelley Winters), an insecure young woman so startled by Robey’s amorous attentions that she is persuaded to let him accompany her back to her family’s brownstone apartment -- where he proceeds to spend the rest of the movie, holding Peggy’s mother, father and pre-teen brother at gun-point in what modern viewers will swiftly identify as an early example of the now familiar Home Invasion sub-genre.
I suppose it must have been decided at some point that “HE BASICALLY STAYED IN ONE PLACE” or “HE REFUSED TO LEAVE” just didn’t quite cut it as titles, but no matter; where sprinting enthusiasts may find themselves disappointed by ‘He Ran All The Way’, fans of the more socially conscious / gritty realist strand of early ‘50s film noir are in for an absolute treat. In every sense other than the lack of running, this one is about as good as it gets.
As you may be aware, John Garfield stands as about the closest thing ‘40s/’50s Hollywood ever got to a martyred saint. After a career largely spent bucking the demands of the studio system and instead championing radical theatre and progressive social causes, Garfield found himself blacklisted with immediate effect after he refused to “name names” when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. It has since been widely assumed that the stress caused both by this and by the simultaneous collapse of his marriage were the main factors which led to his sudden death from a pre-existing heart condition in May 1952, aged just 39.
Shot at around the same time that Garfield was called to testify before HUAC, ‘He Ran All The Way’ represents the star’s final film appearance, and, in retrospect, it provided him with one hell of a way to go out.
As an early champion of the “method”, Garfield perhaps drew upon his own feelings of persecution and impending criminalisation to help transform Nick Robey into an unsettling, sweat-drenched case study in twitchy, working class delinquent paranoia. Simultaneously pitiable and self-pitying, feckless and sadistic, Robey is unpredictable and delusional enough to become genuinely frightening – the kind of guy capable of flipping out and doing just about anything in a moment of rage, only to breakdown and cry with remorse when it’s all too late. At the same time though, he is also weirdly sympathetic – the archetypical dumb, overgrown kid who was probably raised with a daily beating, and never got an even break.
Garfield delivers a powerhouse performance here that can’t help but dominate the film, and if Robey sometimes feels like a character we’ve met a hundred times before, that’s probably because we’ve seen variations of this kind of performance style refracted through the prism of subsequent generations of actors for whom Garfield’s example kicked open the doors, be it Brando, Pacino, Hoffman, Hopper or whoever.
Speaking of tragic heroes of the black-list era, I’m assuming that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – who, strangely, used ‘Werewolf of Paris’ author Guy Endore as his “beard” on this occasion – needs no introduction. Although Trumbo has found himself re-evaluated in recent years as a dignified man of letters and the subject of bittersweet, Oscar-bait biopic, his work here serves to remind us that, at its best, his writing wasn’t merely hard-boiled in the conventional sense, but mercilessly cynical and – if you’ll forgive the neologism - dark as fuck.
Systematically assaulting the fragile fictions that his characters use to keep their self-identifies intact, Trumbo’s screenplay for ‘He Ran all the Way’ eventually leaves all of the principal players brutally exposed, with barely a hint of authorial sympathy to fall back on.
Robey’s dysfunctional background for instance is sketched in about as concisely as is humanly possible. When we first meet him, he is in the process of being woken from his slumber, late in the morning, by his dissolute, hard-drinking harridan of a mother (a wonderful bit part from Gladys George, whom you may recall from her turn as Miles Archer’s wife in ‘The Maltese Falcon’).
“If you were a real man, you’d be out looking for a job,” she scolds her son. “If you were a man, I’d punch your teeth in,” he snaps back, before making a cheap shot about her looking worse for wear for her hangover. Oof. It’s hilarious to observe such a comically dysfunctional mother/son relationship, but, when it comes to figuring out how our protagonist ended up as such a mixed up, deadbeat punk, what more could we possibly need to know?
(We only meet Mrs Robey once more in the film incidentally, when the police come calling after Nick is identified as the perpetrator of the robbery. She appears to be enjoying a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon for breakfast, and basically tells them that she doesn’t give a damn if her son lives or dies. Nice lady, huh?)
Through the remainder of the film, Trumbo’s obsessive unpicking of character dynamics helps generate uniquely grim sense of tension, as the five participants in the confined, hot-house apartment set-up flex and pull against each other like the strands of a cat’s cradle. As Robey’s destabilising influence intensifies, all of the component relationships that make up the Dobbs family – father/son, daughter/parents, husband/wife – find themselves compromised and turned upside down.
Wallace Ford in particular does great work here as the father, Fred (‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ reference, anyone?), and the scenes that depict his young son’s respect for him disintegrating as he sacrifices his masculine authority by taking a cautious, safety-first approach to dealing with the killer in their midst, are heart-breaking.
Perversely, even as he threatens and insults them, Robey also seems to become fixated with the idea of gaining the family’s acceptance. Presumably recognising their home as the kind of loving, mutually supportive environment that he has so lacked in his own life, he finds himself trying to insert himself into their daily routine as if he were some long lost eldest son, sub-consciously framing Ward as a substitute for his own absent father figure, even as another part of him viciously mocks the older man for his passivity and supposed cowardice. It is only when Robey realises that this acceptance will – obviously – not be forthcoming that becomes enraged and turns to violence.
In all cases though, the characters gain a real depth as their desperation increases. During the early part of the film – before Robey first pulls a gun on the family - we’re inclined to wonder why Peggy Dobbs would tolerate his already slightly unhinged, passive-aggressive behaviour, even to the point of inviting him back home to meet her folks after their first meeting.
A later scene between Peggy and a co-worker at her bakery job however clarifies for us that she feels so starved of male attention, and is so lacking in the self-confidence to go out and find any herself, that, when Robey initially comes on to her at the pool, she’s so taken aback that she deliberately overlooks the atmosphere of violence and suspicion dripping off her new suitor, and, once their physical attraction to each other has been established, finds herself willing to do just about anything to stop him leaving without her… even though that is the very thing upon which her family’s safety depends.
In her own way, Peggy is revealed to be as desperate and self-deluding as Robey. Torn between the bosom of her family and the desire to break away and establish an independent life for herself, she represents something very different from the procession of femme fatales, wronged wives and dilettante daughters we normally encounter in film noir, and Winters – a consistently underrated performer who went on to play a long series of these “doomed, mixed up floozy” roles – makes her into just as much of a fascinating and unpredictable piece of work as Garfield does his character.
If ‘He Ran All The Way’ has one weakness, it is probably it’s tendency to veer toward one of those “filmed stage play” type movies that became all the rage on the more cerebral side of Hollywood during the 1950s, as the kind of resurgent theatre so beloved of Garfield began to exert a greater influence upon the industry. (You know, ‘All About Eve’, ’12 Angry Men’ - that sort of thing. Actually, Robert Aldrich’s 1954 film of Clifford Odets’ scabrous Hollywood bridge bonfire ‘The Big Knife’, with a thinly veiled analogue of John Garfield as its central character and Winters in a supporting role, is a perfect example too.)
Unlike some films in this vein however, ‘He Ran..’ rarely suffers too badly from its limited scope, and never feels anything less than thoroughly cinematic. Which brings us neatly the third corner of this movie’s black list triangle – the considerably less feted figure of director John Berry.
Unlike Garfield and Trumbo, Berry was only just beginning to establish himself as a Hollywood ‘name’ when the Feds came knocking (he directed the highly regarded noir ‘Tension’ in 1949), and as a result he seems to have struggled to make much headway after he returned from exile in France (where he directed several of the Eddie Constantine Lemmy Caution movies) in the ‘70s, working only intermittently on a decidedly odd bunch of projects through until he slipped out of the industry in the ‘80s.
This is a shame, because, on the basis of his work here, Berry certainly had the necessary chops to have done some really great work, had circumstances been different. The opening scenes depicting the robbery and Garfield’s flight to the swimming baths are great examples of the kind of down-on-the-street location shooting that started to bring a new energy to noir and crime films from the late ‘40s onward, and his approach to blocking the action within the cramped apartment set within which the latter two thirds of the film take place remains novel and involving throughout.
Taking a few notes perhaps from John Huston’s old “power relationships expressed through the framing” jive in ‘The Maltese Falcon’, Berry manages to keep the lid pushed down tight on the movie’s pressure cooker plotting, giving his actors enough space to let rip whilst never allowing things to boil over into melodrama.
The film’s quality is further enhanced meanwhile by some superb photography from the legendary James Wong Howe. Though he has relatively little to work during interior scenes, the few nocturnal exteriors we get to see, as the increasingly paranoid Robey sneaks glances through the blinds, seeing sinister figures passing in the night, look absolutely fantastic. Minimal lights gleams like liquid gold off the bonnets of pitch black automobiles as they slide through gaps in the deep, inky blackness, highlighting stark silhouettes lurking on the corners of the screen. It’s pure noir, and pure brilliance – a beautifully expressionistic method of shooting urban environments that Howe would go on to perfect a few years later in a similarly talky movie with a few rogue strands of noir lurking in its DNA, Alexander Mackendrick’s ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’ (1957).
All of these strengths – Howe’s sleek visual poetry, Berry’s dynamic direction, Trumbo’s writing and a set of feverishly intense performances from the central cast - come together for what I believe has to be one of the greatest and most devastating ironic finales in all of film noir. I won’t spoil it for you here though, so instead let’s talk about the political undercurrents that – somewhat inevitably, under the circumstances – can be found lurking beneath the surface of this ostensibly simple story.
In view of the personnel involved, it’s not surprising to discover that ‘He Ran all the Way’ attracted the attention of our old friend Thom Anderson, who included it on the list of films he considered key exemplars of what he termed film gris - a short-lived trend of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s that saw a small group of left-leaning filmmakers using the tropes of the low budget crime thriller to offer a critique of American capitalism, and to explore collectivist alternatives to Hollywood’s usual brand of heroic individualism.
Whereas pictures like Thieves Highway and Force of Evil were explicitly polemical in this regard however, ‘He Ran All The Way’ is a lot more circumspect, keeping things sub-textual for the most part. Indeed, it is easy to watch the film without even considering the possibility that it is trying to make a political point; I know that I certainly did. It was only later, noting that the film made it onto Anderson’s list and considering the background of the people who made it, that it got me thinking about just how well the hard-boiled crime idiom lends itself to an anti-capitalist message.
This isn’t exactly a new idea of course, and wouldn't have been in 1951 either. After all, the Warner Bros gangster films of the 1930s provide about as savage a critique of free market capitalism as could possibly be wished for, whilst many of Dashiell Hammett’s genre-defining stories explore the human cost of greed and civic corruption. Specifically in terms of film noir though: where there is money, there are guns, and where there are guns, there is death (and sex, but that’s another story). It ain’t exactly a subtle equation, but what more could an aspiring socialist filmmaker need to get the ball rolling?
In ‘He Ran All The Way’, the Dobbs family seem happily devoid of any of these things when we first meet them. Although they clearly struggle to make ends meet, for the most part they seem satisfied with their lot in life, and I don’t think any family members mention money (or a lack thereof) at any point. They function as a tight-knit, collective unit, with each member keeping the well-being of the others in mind at all times.
When Nick Robey crashes into their life however, he brings money – loads of it. Flashing it around, boasting of how much he got away from the robbery with, he tries his best to revel in the status it confers. He also brings his gun of course, wielding it with all the shaky-handed, phallic substitute ‘certainty’ you’d expect. He mocks the family for their lack of ambition, for the drudgery of their dead-end jobs and for their failure to pursue their individual dreams (and, through his hold over Peggy, he brings the dangerous promise of sex into the picture too of course). Under the stress of his assault, the functionality of the family unit begins to deteriorate, as long repressed resentments and independent desires begin to surface.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Robey attempts to win the family’s gratitude by ordering in a lavish banquet for them. Like the sainted peasants in some revolutionary melodrama however, they take a united stand and refuse his food, recognising it as the fruit of his ill-gotten gains and returning to their own simple fare instead.
This of course sends Robey into a calamitous rage which sees his supposed gesture of kindness transformed into a weird new form of torture, as he forces his prisoners to eat the luxury food at gun point; a reflection perhaps of the way that, for all its promises of benevolent progress, American capitalism countenances no alternatives, having essentially spent the entire modern era refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer from the rest of the world.
Admittedly, it could be argued that the psychological complexity of the film’s characters makes such a straight allegorical reading problematic, but it’s certainly there if you want it, and it adds a particularly dark caste to the Dobbs family’s prospects of future unity after their trauma ends and the credits roll, given the nature of the circumstances that eventually lead to Robey receiving the tarmac-and-lead-based reward we know lays in store for all such independently motivated, overgrown J.D. psychopaths.
Looking back with almost seventy years-worth of retrospect, it seems deeply ironic that, whilst the McCarthyite assertion that Hollywood movies were subliminally spreading dangerous communist sedition has generally been judged by history as wrong-headed, paranoid hysteria, close textural analysis of a film like ‘He Ran all the Way’ might have helped give credence to all of HUAC’s worst fears.
As the final film on Anderson’s chronological list, ‘He Ran all the Way’ can be seen to represent the last gasp of ‘film gris’ before the blacklist shutters slammed down. As Nick Robey’s fist grabs at the air and his wild eyes close for the last time, it also bids farewell to one of the best – and certainly one of the most influential – actors of the noir era.
That’s quite a weight of historical significance for a quick n’ nasty low budget thriller to shoulder, but the movie itself is more than solid enough to take the load. Standing alongside ill-starred classics like ‘Gun Crazy’ (1950) and Ida Lupino’s ‘The Hitchhiker’ (1953), it is one of the very best crime movies to have emerged from this particular time and place.