In his influential essay, “Red Hollywood” (later self-adapted as a documentary), Thom Andersen posits John Garfield as the “first axiom of film gris,” i.e. those thrillers made under the bad sign of the blacklist, trafficking in pseudonymous credits, persecution themes, and withering allegories of capitalism. John Berry’s He Ran All the Way is one such film. I saw it Tuesday night at Noir City and was floored by Garfield’s performance, his last. The movie opens with his character writhing in nightmare and ends with him collapsed in the gutter; the actor died within a year, a blot clot. Garfield’s past (poverty, boxing, an “ethnic” outlier) and destiny (death at an early age) fuse in this thoroughly non-redemptive role. Glenn Kenny performed a nice meta-reading a few months back via Larry “Doc” Sportello’s comments on the film, embedded in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. I haven’t read the Pynchon, but I was too entranced with Garfield’s lumpy performance—which, most unusually for Hollywood, never seems to be going anywhere, but rather expands and contracts—to be disturbed by “the patina of bathos” Kenny sees in the film’s characterizations, which I admit aren’t much. Perhaps others will be run aground on the heavy “smell” of a blacklist allegory, as in Farber’s “wet towels of artiness and significance.” But is it really so clear what the film wants us to think? Garfield’s Nick Robey is both victim and deranged criminal, and that tension isn’t resolved in the manner of a social problem picture; this is blacklist as existential crisis. I was surprised that Castro house cheered when Nick was put down (“like a dog”) at the end, except for Shelly Winter’s bitter victory. But insofar as the film struck me as an expression of desperation rather than a finger-pointing exercise, I keep returning to Garfield’s body, coiled with rage (though James Wong Howe’s textured cinematography and the fluid claustrophobia of John Berry’s framings are also praiseworthy).
The plot is full of holes, big enough for the characters to fall through. Nick is woken from his nightmare by his PBR-swilling (no joke) mother. A hoodlum pal hustles him over to a big score before breakfast, with Nick still grousing about bad dreams. Berry doesn’t even pretend the stick-up will work, pushing Nick right off the edge in a series of canted angles. The friend gets shot; Nick grabs the suitcase, runs and sweats; shoots a cop, who’s felled in a weird collapse of space reminiscent of a comic book panel (and here we pause to repeat for 1951 emphasis: a Jew kills a cop). Nick runs some more, mixing into a carnival crowd and, in a bravura slice-of-lost-life, dives into a crowded public swimming pool. The bad dream continues, in other words. In the pool, he bumps into Peggy (Winters), a convenient beard for the cops wandering the perimeter. Somehow they get back to Peggy’s boring family, entirely out of joint with Nick’s frantic flight. He barricades himself in the apartment, psychologically and physically, holding the family hostage (who, Kenny’s right, are sniveling dopes) to gnaw on cigarettes for a couple of day. The last hour of a film called He Ran All the Way is about a guy who stays put.
Garfield’s calibrated body language (clutching people and objects, migraine-evoking brow exercises, hoarse commands) is as distinctly auteur-ish as any compositional scheme. Berry and Howe use the dynamic visual language of the boxing film (those canted angles, jumps in space) to wrap Garfield’s easily perturbed physique, the stalking gait and scary outbursts, all doubling back on Garfield’s own well-known biographical history as a Bronx fighter. That the shadowboxing is staged in a railroad flat rather a ring makes Nick’s fury seem misspent, irreconciliable.
Garfield sustains the character’s bipolarity throughout the film; what makes the character moving is exactly that his tough-guy hysterics are so unconvincing (disbelief seems crucial as the opening nightmare presses on). We don’t really think he wants hurt anyone, and know he would actually make a fine fit in the family he’s terrorizing; but this knowledge doesn’t mend anything. His escalating paranoia is where the film, in my view, becomes prophetic. For in Nick’s introverted annihilation, we see the unresolved “bad dream” of persecution eroding into a narcissistic bunker mentality—from Old Left to Weather Underground, as it were. An over-simplified reading to be sure, but one grounded in the shape of Garfield’s performance. When he blindly tears down the apartment steps at the end of the film, we get a premonition of both Travis Bickle (the flipside of the political spectrum) and Cassavetes’ roaring, ineffectual husbands.
And so finally, I’m left wondering: is Nick’s dream at the beginning of the film about the bad hand that’s already been dealt or the blind corners still to come?