Hollywood

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

DETROIT

2017, USA

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The movie Detroit is strong and accomplished. It resembles its director Katherine Bigelow. She is now 65 years old but has the figure of a young woman. It is easy to imagine her working out in the gymnasium, her willpower and intense application attempting the impossible, something that will separate her from normal mortals and help her to be like the action heroes that dominate her movies. I suspect that speculation is sexist but it is how I imagine Bigelow, pounding gymnasium equipment when not making movies. Detroit is hard-hitting and visceral. Those expecting an intelligent analysis of race relations in the USA or even the complex social problems behind the riots of 1967 will be disappointed.   The title of the film is disingenuous. Detroit exists as a companion piece to The Hurt Locker rather than a study of a city. It is a film about men in conflict. To reveal the problems that exist between the races in the USA requires quieter moments and, though they exist in Detroit, it is there that the movie is less accomplished.

The Hurt Locker was released in 2008 and received critical acclaim and awards. Katherine Bigelow is now considered a major director. Detroit, like The Hurt Locker, needs to be watched on a large cinema screen with loud surround sound.  Bigelow is a master of form. Watch The Hurt Locker on TV today and it is difficult to discover what excited people at the time. The set pieces are well done but the characters and themes are second-hand. The alienated male that is addicted to war is a steal from Malraux and Hemingway, and the steady soldier who cracks without warning appeared in the form of Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High.

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Detroit is based on a real event. The back cover of The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey has a precise definition of what happened. ‘Responding to a telephoned report of sniping, the police group invaded the Algiers Motel and interrogated ten black men and two white women, none of them were armed, for an hour. By the time the interrogators had left, three men had been shot and the others, including the women, had been beaten.’   Although author John Hersey understands that the policemen were more than uncomplicated monsters he is unequivocal about what happened. This was routine police behaviour that led to excessive consequences because the police were frustrated by an explanation that was beyond their grasp and by suspects too terrified to articulate properly what had happened. There is something of that in the movie but it feels fudged. Both white prejudice and black grievance are articulated. There will be Afro-Americans who will watch Detroit and feel that integration with white oppressive bullies is impossible. But white racists will also locate justification for their hostility towards what they regard as an alien race or, as one policeman says in the film, ‘you people’.

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Amongst the ten people held in the motel by the police was Roderick Davis who at the time was the lead singer of The Dramatics.   The incident scarred Davis, and he abandoned his career as a recording artist. The experience of Davis is important to the film but for most of the film the activities of Afro-Americans appear to be restricted to drinking alcohol, chasing whores, gambling and rioting. It is unfortunate that when we do see Afro-Americans work they make music and dream of escape. This is balanced at the end when the families of the victims prepare for the court case and there are a couple of scenes of Afro-Americans doing ordinary jobs. But by then it is too little and too late. The notion of exclusive Afro-American hedonism has been perpetuated. The policemen involved in the Algiers Motel incident were acquitted. In the film this appears to be the consequence of a well-meaning but flawed legal system too easily circumvented by smart lawyers.   This interpretation contains a glib oversight. The jury took just thirteen minutes to return a not guilty verdict. Three people were dead, and nine witnesses including two white women testified to being beaten. It is believable that there may not have been enough evidence to convict but thirteen minutes does not even allow for regret and sympathy.

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Katherine Bigelow is exceptional at taking actors who are not considered charismatic and have them carry a film. Her fast editing style helps but she is also good with performers. She made a star of Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker and somehow prevented Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze making Point Break deadly dull.   John Boyega and Will Poulter are British actors. Boyega appeared in the recent Star Wars success.   He plays Melvin Dismukes the security guard who attempts to be the peacemaker between the police and the suspects.  Boyega is marvellous, a fabulous mix of decency, strength and wary curiosity.   In the endnotes to the film we discover that Dismukes left Detroit because of death threats. The endnotes do not mention that those threats came from the Black Panthers. This censorship, like that of the thirteen minute verdict, underplays the conflict that exists in American society. In a dramatic and violent film such timidity and sensitivity are unwarranted. It feels like someone was thinking about box office takings and was keen not to alienate the elements within the audience. The performance of 23 year old Will Poulter makes the film interesting. He plays a less than capable policeman who wanders into a situation that is beyond his control. Desperate to maintain authority he relies on the dark side of his character. The British understand insecurity and anxiety, and Poulter relishes playing a blustering adolescent obliged to be tough and nasty. Rounded characterisation is welcome and important but most people will leave the film and wonder just how these gauche policemen managed to produce the chaos and violence that happened. Those curious should read The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey.

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Limitations aside the strength of Detroit is that it feels real and authentic. The soundtrack is great and any musical score that opens with I Know I’m Losing You by The Temptations deserves respect. Informed by real events the movie resists the next steps that we expect from melodrama or typical action movies.  Melvin Dismukes has strength and decency but he is not heroic. He is unable to mitigate the carnage. The policeman Philip Kraus stumbles into his violence and sadism. The film has two great visual images. After the riots have begun the National Guard and their tanks arrive. They look like what they are, a conquering army.   A Marxist determinist would argue that the history of the human race has been shaped by three pervasive victories. These are the establishment of a hierarchy by an oppressive elite, the dominance of men over women and the imperial exploration that allowed the white race to conquer foreign lands and their people. Watch that tank arrive on the city streets of Detroit and it is clear that slavery may have been outlawed but that those initial imperial victories continue to shape our societies. The same conquerors not only still run everything. They are recognisable.

The second image is no less powerful.   After the incident in the Algiers Motel, Roderick Davis and the rest of The Dramatics visit the recording studio where they will cut their first record. Davis sees a white man in the recording booth and pulls away. He decides to quit a business where white people will have influence. The image of the white man behind the glass panel is memorable. We understand and experience the paranoia of Davis. I am not sure how Bigelow did it but at that moment, seeing the penetrating and silent stare of the white man, I was disturbed by nothing more than the sight of a white face. Most people watching the film will remember that man as sinister and threatening. It affected me that way, and I grew up on the romance of Sam Phillips recording Howling Wolf, Junior Parker and Elvis Presley.

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Before the main film begins there is a cartoon that explains some of the history before the riots occurred. The written text in the cartoon alleges that Afro-Americans travelled north to seek better jobs and civil rights. This is not quite right. Some Afro-Americans would have had this motive. The flight from the South was, though, a consequence of mechanisation in agriculture.  Jobs were lost, and both Afro-Americans and white Americans headed north. Country music may not have travelled as well as the blues but hillbilly culture can be found in the North East. But that is a detail. The white race created a holocaust after they moved into Africa. It is estimated that 12 million slaves were transported across the Atlantic. White or establishment guilt and redress have been inadequate. In every social and economic measurement in the USA and the UK, Afro Americans and black Britons have inferior opportunities, prospects and rewards. In the United States the median wealth of white households is thirteen times greater than that of Afro-American households. The number thirteen is important because it is, of course, the number of minutes that it took a jury to acquit three policemen who thought it unnecessary to report neither the three dead bodies that they left behind in the Algiers Motel nor the injuries to the survivors they battered and bullied for an hour.

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.