Marlon Brando

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

BONUS FEATURE – JOHN GARFIELD

1913-1952

 

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John Garfield was a tough guy with a weak heart. Both qualities were a consequence of his childhood. A heavy dose of scarlet fever left Garfield with the damaged heart. His impoverished childhood meant he ran wild on the streets of New York. He even sampled the life of a hobo. The opening sentence of the novella The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain is one of the best ever; ‘They threw me off the hay truck about noon.’ After that the beginning of the movie was destined to be an anti-climax, and it would have been except that it was authentic tough guy John Garfield falling off the back of the truck.   The novella by Cain was sexy and a little twisted. The movie was censored by the Motion Picture Production Code but the bureaucrats could do nothing about the lusty expectation in the eyes of Garfield and the open mouth simper of Lana Turner. The movie was a big hit. Audiences liked Turner and Garfield.   If Turner was sexy and beautiful, the appeal of Garfield was more complicated.

 

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John Garfield was an actor rated by both the critics and his peers. He had a naturalistic style that anticipated Brando and an intensity that could be compared to Cagney. Garfield can be described as the link between the two actors and the different acting traditions. Garfield, like Cagney, was a physical actor.  In his performances he holds a cigarette and a telephone as if they are weapons. When he turns the pages of a newspaper, he concentrates in a way that insists we think about the information he is absorbing. There are many fabulous moments in his career and more than a few in his greatest movie, the best ever film noir Force Of Evil. At one point in Force Of Evil, Garfield walks through a corridor. He is a lawyer, and running is not permissible. To let us know that he is determined, Garfield tilts his shoulder so that it is at an angle to the floor and he walks in a line that is not quite straight.   The gesture is an exaggerated way of communicating determination but it is also audacious and it succeeds.

Actors who shared a similar background to Garfield could provide physical authenticity but struggled with subtle dialogue.   John Garfield also had a good ear. Nothing in his career was as challenging as the dialogue in Force Of Evil.  In subsequent interviews the director Abraham Polonsky claimed that the dialogue in the film was not the blank verse the critics assumed.  According to Polonsky, he did nothing more than sprinkle some repetition and add poetical rhythm.   Whatever we are listening to, Garfield is adept.  He provides a lyrical lilt and adds tension to the pauses.

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His heart, and perhaps his background, caused the death of the actor in 1952.  John Garfield was 39 years old.  In the previous year he made his last film He Ran All The Way.  Weariness, which may have had something to do with what was happening in his life, informed a convincing performance. Garfield played Nick Robey an amoral criminal who is without pity for his victims. But, because of the acting by Garfield, we understand that the criminal is a wounded animal. Nick Robey, like many others, never had a chance.   Critics and fellow actors understood the skill of Garfield. The rest of us approved of him because he appeared to be like the people we knew, an ordinary man, cocky but shy, arrogant but insecure, loud but wary, innocent but tricky and cunning. In the 40s there was no one like Garfield and that still applied when his movies appeared on British TV many years later.

Not all the movies that John Garfield made were great but that has something to do with him having to do what he was told by Hollywood.   Before the end of his career he co-founded the independent production company The Enterprise Studio. The nine films made by the studio are a mixed bunch.   They include Westerns, comedies and romantic dramas.  None are awful but three are important.  Caught is a fine film noir from the great director Max Ophuls, and Body And Soul and Force Of Evil are the two classics.  These two were made because of the independence and single-mindedness of The Enterprise Studio. The later blacklisted Abraham Polonsky wrote the scripts for both films and he directed Force Of Evil.

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For all of his life Polonsky believed that capitalism was a flawed economic and social system. The movies, though, are not tainted by pedestrian dialectic. Polonsky liked to suggest rather than preach.   Right wing cynics assumed that he nailed the flaws in human nature. Left wing rebels secretly waved the flag under their cinema seat.  In both of the Polonsky films Garfield plays a man who has ambition, someone who wants money and what and whom it buys. He is always, though, more than mere gluttony and appetites. Fear feeds his ambition.  The moments of conscience are sparse but believable.

In a better world it would have been different. Garfield would have lived until he was old, Polonsky would not have been blacklisted, and more great films from the two men would have followed. Instead of being restricted to being a movie icon of the 40s, Garfield would have accepted the offer of the part of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Because of his involvement with The Enterprise Studio, Garfield said no, and Brando took the role.  Marlon was so good people looked to the future rather than remember the past. The memory and contribution of John Garfield was obscured by the hard-hitting realism of Brando and the daring of Tennessee Williams.  It could have been different. Brando would have arrived whatever Garfield had done. If Garfield had claimed the part of Kowalski, the two men might have shaped and shared the decade and what followed.

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It did not happen. Garfield stayed in Hollywood and made two classic movies but was persecuted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His wife had been a member of the Communist Party.   The accepted opinion is that Garfield was a left leaning liberal.  In his testimony to the House Committee he condemned Communism.  He proclaimed himself to be a patriot and a Democrat.  During the Second World War he made a few patriotic flag wavers, again they included a couple of classics, Air Force and Destination Tokyo.  In Hollywood there were creative talents who were committed to Marxist ideology.  The House Committee wanted names of what they regarded as fellow conspirators. There was no conspiracy just a few people exchanging ideas and theory but the lack of a sinister plot was no deterrent to the members of the Committee.   Left wing writers and directors were put under pressure to reveal names, and the majority buckled. John Garfield had less reason than others to resist. He was asked to identify people who had political opinions with which he disagreed. Resist, though, he did. John Garfield had his tough guy ethics, the code of the street and his social class. He refused to give names. When he had to do something other than pretend to be a hero, John Garfield delivered.   His two children both became actors.  His inspiration reached beyond the movie screen and into an admiring family.

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The authenticity of John Garfield was a key factor in his success as a movie actor yet the truth is he had more than that.   He was handsome from certain angles but ordinary in others. He convinced both as a lover and warrior. His politics were inspired by decency rather than theory. The performances of Garfield remind an audience that he has not forgotten what it is like to suffer and be powerless. He is always a dominant personality but in many of his films he qualifies as the victim. If his characters become rich, they have to battle and take knocks. He was persuasive as a boxer but also as a gangster with an aching heart. And he also held his own against magnetic female stars such as Lana Turner, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

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Apart from the Polonsky duo there are two other films where Garfield and his sense of what capricious life means for ordinary people puts him in a special class. These are The Sea Wolf and They Made Me A Criminal. The latter is a piece of tosh.  The happy ending is unbelievable yet a relief because that is what anyone watching wants for Garfield.  The Sea Wolf is based on the fine novel by Jack London. The adaptation shelves the second half of the book, which is okay because people had to get home after watching the film. A sequel would have been welcome because we could have watched Garfield and Ida Lupino battle the privations of life on a remote island.  But maybe the solitary hero was not in the nature of John Garfield.  He may have been a lonely man when he appeared in front of the House Committee on Un-American activities but his heroism was always defined by his sympathy for the victims of the powerful.  In The Sea Wolf he is the rebellious George Leach who struggles against the cruel captain Wolf Larsen.  Garfield does what he does best.  He resists and protests. It is how he will be remembered.

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 Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, a travel book and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

HIGH NOON AND JEREMY CORBYN

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Apart from Psycho there is no Hollywood B Movie as polished or as crafted as High Noon. The simple plot of High Noon was why the film lasted no more than 82 minutes. Later the work of director Fred Zinnemann became dull and worthy but even on a mammoth middlebrow bore like A Man For All Seasons his technical skills and intelligence prevailed. Before he became fashionable, Zinnemann made two fine low budget crime movies. Kid Glove Killer is slight and light but has irresistible charm. The two heroes reflect the decent values that made Zinnemann a civilised individual. Their relationship hints at the possibilities that exist for the principled and capable.  Act Of Violence is a dark film noir. The great Van Heflin stars in both films. In High Noon Grace Kelly may be too young, beautiful and East Coast upper class for a one horse western town but most of the time Zinnemann recognised a talented actor. Marlon Brando was one of many offered the part of Sheriff Will Kane in High Noon. Brando would have been fabulous and he was the right age for the part of Kane. Gary Cooper was not only old; he was not well. But despite his physical limitations Gary Cooper is perfect as Sheriff Will Kane.

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High Noon is neither the best film nor the best Western that Cooper appeared in but, as always, he mixes anxiety and strength to reveal a limited but honourable man of practical violence. His virtues are inspiring and transcendental. Kane is patient, cautious, able to weigh options and to be courageous.  Sheriff Will Kane does not use the word integrity but he understands the meaning of responsibility. One scene deserves to be mentioned. His single enthusiastic volunteer discovers that Kane has been unable to acquire more men to help face the Miller gang.  Now aware that there is a real possibility that he could be killed the volunteer hands in his temporary badge. Kane says little about the betrayal but thanks to the subtle changes in the expressions on the face of Cooper we watch a lonely man understand his own limitations, recognise the weaknesses in others and appreciate his fate and the conspiracy that is beyond human betrayal.

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High Noon would have had more political resonance if the townspeople had applied pressure to a Quaker wife who had persuaded her husband to renounce violence. Kane is neither a moderate nor a pacifist. Carl Foreman wrote the script and, because he had been a member of the Communist Party, he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Russian Government, though, condemned High Noon as same old American individualism. Stalin had his faults but, as Eisenstein discovered, he could analyse a movie. The old monster may have had a point.

But, despite the reservations of Uncle Joe, High Noon still works both as an account of the struggle between pragmatism and integrity and as a commentary on what was happening in Hollywood. Will Kane is normally a self-sufficient Sheriff but against the Miller gang he needs help.  Kane thinks his decision to face Frank Miller is common sense. If he does not, Miller will be able to follow him to another town. At least if he stays put Kane has friends and those obliged to be loyal because of his previous work as a Sheriff. The people of the town have a choice, back Sheriff Will Kane against the Miller gang but risk death and injury or accommodate the villains and sell them food and drink to make extra money. This metaphor makes sense both as an explanation of what movie folk did to preserve their careers and of how we accept the iniquities of capitalism.

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The resistance to Kane exists amongst the outsiders, the ordinary people who just want to have fun and enjoy life and the moralists who like to think they have a conscience and understand decency. The outsiders consist of an ambitious and troubled Deputy, the Quaker wife of Kane, and his ex-mistress who may or may not have been a whore before she acquired the saloon. There is an ambiguous moment in a conversation. The pause refers either to the Mexican nationality or the dubious past of the mistress. It is an elliptical highlight in an economical script. The people who want to have fun are the men in the bar who prefer to be left alone to have a drink and who are not too particular about their drinking partners. These are the willing dupes of the men who view the arrival of the Miller gang as a business opportunity. ‘We’re gonna have a big day today,’ says the barman. Kane is abandoned by the outsiders and dismissed by the fun lovers in the saloon. Life is too short for anything but fun, and the drinkers do not want to be interrupted. Kane confronts the moralists and the thoughtful in the church. These people are willing to debate the issue.  The congregation is persuaded by the speech of the Mayor. The speech is impressive because it presents an alternative view to that of the filmmakers. Unable to counter the eloquent arguments of the Mayor, Kane leaves to prepare for a violent contest that is likely to result in his death. As he leaves the church, children are playing a tug of war. At the end of their game all the children collapse on the ground. Debate is important but it is always undermined by self-interest and partisanship.  The church appears to have little to do with religion but is merely a place where the timid can huddle together and pretend they have principles.

Kane the virtuous man is more of a threat to the order and lives of the townspeople than the criminal elements. The immoral can be distanced by social hierarchy and utilised for business and profit. Instead of being shamed by Kane the townspeople dismiss his integrity as stubbornness. Even the original movie poster was ambivalent. It hailed a ‘man too stubborn to leave town’.

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Jeremy Corbyn has also been described as stubborn. His friends and admirers regard him as principled and resolute. Others have described him as narcissistic. This is an easy accusation because integrity will always have its narcissistic element. Integrity depends on the mirror and what we are prepared to accept when we face our reflection. Cooper is admirable in High Noon because his resistance requires personal strength but he also has a figure that looks good as it strolls a dusty boardwalk. We like the way he looks. The protests of Corbyn against an economic system that has been reshaped by neoliberals have been resented by many MPs in the Labour Party.   These MPs have sounded like the drinkers in the saloon in High Noon, people who argue that change may spoil their fun.   The economic system may be unfairly balanced against the powerless but life is too short to be interrupted by serious protest.

The principles and values of Corbyn have never been compromised by the fear of defeat. His work ethic is impressive, and his commitment and energy are a match for any self-made man. In the 2017 election it appeared until the exit poll as if he would suffer a humiliating result. Prior to the campaign he had been mocked and attacked by a hostile British press. The lies about his character had been relentless. Corbyn persisted against entrenched levels of resistance. He behaved as if he was a key figure in the progress of history. In the 2017 election Corbyn campaigned on a manifesto that aimed to stimulate economic growth and contained proposals that would benefit working families. Nothing in the manifesto, though, suggested revolution or the weakening of the capitalist hegemony on British society. If it was radical, it was only because all the other politicians and mainstream journalists had huddled in their church and pretended that their supposedly informed debate had consequence and merit.

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Corbyn may appear to have the demeanour of a revolutionary but his ambition appears to consist of nothing more than improving lives. His message has been described as cuddly socialism, and it is an apt phrase because Corbyn has more cuddles than most. He is not like normal politicians, those who prosper in huddles around utilitarian arguments.   Like Will Kane, he has been obliged to walk alone along the dusty boardwalk, knowing that others have ridiculed and condemned him. He may not have had to face death at the end of the street but for most of his life his efforts, which have been considerable, have resulted in predictable defeat.

Kane is victorious at the end of High Noon. His victory requires luck, mistakes by his adversaries and assistance from someone who does not share his principles. Brexit divided the Labour Party but it helped Corbyn to attract some Remain voters, which is why some journalists have said Corbyn was lucky. The psychological chaos that is Theresa May ensured her campaign was error driven, and there were more than a few people who voted for Corbyn despite having a real antipathy to anything that suggests change and a refusal to compromise.

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Corbyn has not yet won an election but he achieved a result this year that has transformed British politics. No one can have faith in the judgement of the British electorate and its decision-making. The effort and integrity of those interested in social and economic change may make little difference to the history of Britain. Corbyn and his followers, though, have the satisfaction of treading a boardwalk that others have sidestepped. Sometimes there will be dust to taste in the mouth. Most of the time, though, the air should feel fresh and clean.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.