Wednesday, June 22, 2011

He Ran All the Way

He Ran All the Way is an emotionally and narratively incoherent film that is, nevertheless, compelling in its raw examination of a family under pressure and a man without a family falling to pieces as he realizes just how unloved he really is. Nick Robey (John Garfield) is a loser with no real connections in the world, and no real hopes. The opening shot is a pan across Nick's messy, cramped apartment, finally resting on the bed where Nick thrashes around, yelling in his sleep, haunted by nightmares of endlessly running. He's woken by his mother (Gladys George), who obviously has not the least bit of affection for her son. She berates him for being so lazy, sleeping until nearly noon when he should be out looking for a job, and they get into a nasty argument that climaxes with her slapping him. This is a portrait of a totally unloving mother/son relationship; every time Nick calls her "mom," he spits the word out with such contempt that he makes it sound like a slur, a hateful curse. From the beginning, it's apparent that this is a man who has nothing.

Nick soon tries to pull off a payroll robbery with his weaselly friend Al (Norman Lloyd), but the plot of course goes wrong, Al is wounded and captured, and Nick shoots a police officer while escaping. There follows one of the film's most visually potent sequences, as Nick wanders through a series of desolate urban landscapes, living up to the film's title and fulfilling the prophecy of his nightmare about killing a man and being forced to run constantly. Director John Berry and cinematographer James Wong Howe perfectly capture that sensation of being alone in a dismal world, a never-ending flight from unseen pursuers who might be lurking around any corner. The images isolate Nick in his surroundings, until finally he manages to lose himself in the crowds at a pool. That early sequence of Nick on the run is important, because after Nick meets the innocent Peggy (Shelley Winters) and gets her to bring him home with her, the film settles down into a claustrophobic cabin fever drama with the paranoid Nick imprisoning Peggy and her family in their own apartment.

Howe's shadowy noir imagery is so eerily beautiful in the exterior shots that it's almost a shame that the bulk of the film is spent cooped up in an apartment from that point on, but Howe and Berry are equally adept at conveying the tight spaces of the few rooms where Nick imprisons Peggy, her parents, and her little brother. Unfortunately, though Garfield delivers a relentless, grim performance as the cornered, pathetic Nick, the film's narrative and characterization leap haphazardly around, making a hash of what could have been a thematically resonant study of family and love. Nick's initial come-ons to the sheltered Peggy are so schizophrenic that one wonders why she spends a minute with him; he's at best distracted and at worst seems sociopathic and nasty, and yet despite some initial resistance she invites him back to her family's apartment and awkwardly flirts with him.

Peggy is a pathetic character, weak-willed and malleable, a caricature of the good girl who doesn't know anything of the world or sex. It's kind of laughable when, late in the film, she makes an attempt to dress sexy and seduce Nick, who is also something of an idiot (or else just desperate for love) and seems wowed by her gussied-up look even though, it must be said, she basically looks exactly the same as she always had. There's an interesting idea here, no doubt about it. Nick is a guy with no connections: his only friend sells him out and gives up his name to the police, making his situation even worse, and when he tries to contact his mother she wants nothing to do with him. Nick doesn't care about anyone or anything, but his confrontations with Peggy's father Fred (Wallace Ford) are interesting as the collision of two totally different archetypes. Fred is a family man and a religious man, and all he wants out of life is to be left alone, to work, to spend time with his family. When Fred asks what Nick wants out of life, all Nick can do is wave a handful of money in the other man's face, as though this grubby handful of stolen bills is a substitute for the happy family life that Fred has.

The film's development of this theme is haphazard at best, and the long middle section of the film quickly enters a holding pattern in which nothing much happens. The tension merely remains static, neither building nor receding, and the family tries to go about their lives as best they can while Nick endlessly dithers. The script sometimes becomes almost comical in the heavy-handed lengths it goes to reinforce the family theme. In one scene, Nick buys the family dinner, but the mother cooks a stew for her family, and they all eat that while ignoring the comparatively lavish feast that Nick has set out for them. He then tries to force them to eat at gunpoint, and a very unlikely standoff occurs, with the father delivering a forced speech that feels much more like the script setting out its principles than like anything a man in this situation would actually say.

The ending is especially incoherent, as Peggy sometimes seems to be tricking Nick into thinking she loves him, and sometimes seems to be actually feeling something for him. There's a moment when Nick, thinking he's been betrayed, pulls his gun on Peggy and nearly shoots her, and the script treats this as though it's a revelation — "you were going to shoot me," Peggy sputters, unbelieving, as though Nick hadn't been consistently nutty and violent throughout the film. Either the girl is truly dense or the script is simply inconsistent in its portrayal of this unlikely quasi-romance. Nick, for his part, really is just dense, or really so desperate for someone to care about him that he'll accept even the most unconvincing declarations of love. In spite of all the film's narrative holes and half-realized characterization, though, the ending really is potent and emotionally raw. Nick is forced to confront, on a rain-slick, nighttime noir street, the reality of his complete worthlessness and disconnection. He ends the film literally staring into the light, having gained a measure of self-awareness about his own role in pushing away anyone who might care for him with his distrust and anger and brutality. It is, of course, a realization that comes far too late for him.


DavidEhrenstein said...

The relentless grimness of the perfomance proceeds from the fact that Garfield was actually dying. This was the last thing he ever did, and he knew it was.

John Berry is a blacklist figure whose career hasn't been sufficiently appreciated. Casbah his musical version of Pepe Le Moko starring Tony Martin with truly great songs by harold Arlen ("Hooray For Love," "It Was Wirtten in the Stars") is an especial favorite of mine.
When he got the hell out of Didge he headed to France, returning briefly in the mid-70's to make the only non-gangster "Blacksploitation" film Claudine. He was also an actor, co-starring with Delphine Seyrig in Chantal Acterman's musical The Golden 80s

His last film, an adpatation of Athol Fugard's play Boesman and Lena starring Danny Glover and Angela Bassett was released posthumously (he died right after editing it.)

His son Dennis is an actor (for Rivette) and director in his own right. He was married to Jean Seberg, and later on Anna Karina. Both marriages ended in divorce.

Ed Howard said...

Did not know that about Garfield, David. It's definitely an intense, chilling performance, and that final shot acquires even more resonance with the actor's approaching mortality in mind.

Interesting info about Berry, too. He sounds like yet another fascinating director whose career was warped and altered by the blacklist.