John Garfield, Film Noir and the Hollywood Blacklist

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By Mark R. Gould

The Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to restoring film noir classics, recently showcased the work of the influential actor John Garfield (1913-52).

Most baby boomers are a little too young to remember Garfield, unless they saw his films  on the Late Show. Garfield's  career ended tragically in 1952 when he died of heart disease. His death followed a painful period  when he was  hounded by the  House Un-American Activities Committee  (HUAC), which was investigating  communist influences in American life.

Although film noirs are still being made, their heyday was roughly between the early 1940’s and the late 1950’s. The films were heavily influenced by the hard boiled school of crime fiction written by James Cain and Raymond Chandler. Experts say that the moody black and white visual style of film noir evolved from the cinematography seen in German Expressionist films. Many German directors emigrated to the U.S. and were behind the camera to direct some of the great American film noirs.

Noted author, lecturer and Film Noir Foundation board member Alan K. Rode  says these are the top ten film noirs, (in order):

I would add to this excellent list: Gun Crazy, Peggy Cummins and John Dall ,1950, The Set-Up, Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter 1949, The Big Heat, Glen Ford and Gloria Grahame 1952, Born to Kill, Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor, 1948,  Pickup on South Street, Richard Widmark and Jean Peters, 1953,  Touch of Evil, Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, 1958, The Killing, Sterling Hayden, 1955, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, John Garfield and Lana Turner, 1947

Which brings us to He Ran All the Way, John Garfield’s  last film. Here's the plot: Petty thief Nick Robey (Garfield)  botches a robbery, leaving his partner Al (Norman Lloyd) severely wounded as Nick escapes with over $10,000. Meeting bakery worker Peg Dobbs (Shelly Winters) Peg takes Nick to her family's apartment, and he decides to take the family hostage until he can escape. As a manhunt for Nick begins outside, the robber becomes increasingly paranoid. Meanwhile, Peg schemes to sacrifice herself for the safety of her family.

Garfield, was a popular leading man beginning in the late 1930s, who made some great film noirs.  Last summer, He Ran All the Way was screened in cities throughout the U.S. at  Film Noir Foundation Film Festivals.  I enjoyed it at the Music Box in Chicago.  Author Foster Hirsch hosted the screening.

Recently. Julie Garfield, John Garfield’s daughter,  attended a Film Noir Foundation screening of He Ran All the Way in  Palm Springs, California, and participated in a discussion  about her dad’s career with author Kim Morgan.

Garfield’s best work can be seen in Gentlemen's Agreement, They Made Me a Criminal, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body and Soul, Force of Evil, The Breaking Point, Nobody Lives Forever, Humoresque, Flowing Gold, Between Two Worlds, We Were Strangers and He Ran All the Way. Julie Garfield’s favorite is Body and Soul. Garfield won an Oscar nomination for the film.

Garfield, an actress and teacher, said her father, "endured a rough childhood." His mother died when he was young, and his father decided to split up Julie and his brother (Garfield's real name was Jacob Julius Garfinkle, but he liked to be called Julie) between two families. She described her father as troubled and angry, a neglected young man.

However, Garfield's father remarried and his second wife took an interest in the youngster.  They lived on the lower east side of New York and later the Bronx.  Julie Garfield says her dad  would hang off the side of buildings by his feet for money, and, naturally, people thought he was  ”crazy.”

After being expelled from two public schools, he became  a protege of a principal who helped him overcome his stammer and encouraged him to participate in debate. Debate led to acting. He contracted an illness as a young man that caused heart disease, which would plague him throughout his short life.

Garfield was accepted into the Group Theater, a prestigious New York acting group, and cast in Clifford Odet’s Golden Boy. Garfield  was recruited to Hollywood by Warner Bros. Many of his theater colleagues called him a “sellout” for leaving the New York theater, said his daughter.

His first film, Four Daughters, was a surprise hit and he received an Oscar nomination. His daughter describes his persona as a “rebel, a hobo, a beatnik, a man of the people and "ethnic,” unlike the leading men of film at the time. Many were trying to hide their real ethnic identities in an absurd effort to not alienate audiences. Garfield was a fresh force in film and audiences were excited.

He performed in many high profile films, but was at times unsatisfied with the results. He was under contract to the studio, and there were often disagreements about the roles he was offered. Garfield had higher aspirations for his career than to just be a matinee idol. Studio chief Jack Warner did not share Garfield's vision for his career and was more interested in churning out money-making films.

Robert Nott in his fine biography of Garfield, He Ran All the Way, describes an actor struggling to find projects worthy of his talent. Some of the  films he appeared in included The Sea WolfTortilla Flat, Destination Tokyo, Humoresque, Pride of the Marines, and Gentleman's Agreement. They were a mixed bag in terms of quality, although he was excellent in many of them. This led to Garfield forming his own production company to try to develop challenging projects, which he did later in his career.

"John Garfield faced the same challenge every film actor faced during the heyday of the studio system style of film-making. He was under contract to a studio that had the right to cast him in any movie it saw fit. To be fair, most of the studios had a team of producers, directors, and writers who could pinpoint a particular star’s strengths and worked to capitalize on those strengths in terms of finding vehicles that would appeal to the public – and hence make the studio money," Nott told

According to Nott, "Garfield’s first movie role, as Mickey Borden in Four Daughters, gave him the chance to basically sculpt the mold for the sensitive tough-guy, the anti-hero, the outcast on screen. Not surprisingly Warner Bros. - which prided itself on its line-up of tough-guy actors including James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, and Humphrey Bogart – saw how audiences responded to Garfield’s sensitive, doomed pianist, and simply transplanted that character (and the actor) into gangster stories, prison dramas, and heel-on-the-lam pictures."

"The forces that prevented him from getting high quality roles were really the result of the combined willpower of the Warner Bros., the studio system in general, and the general public, which also had its own perception of how Garfield (or Cagney or Bogart for that matter) should appear on screen," he said.

Stephen Holden describes the actor’s persona in the films that followed, including He Ran All the Way, in a piece that appeared in the New York Times, "An Actor's Portrait, in Noir and White."

“A composite movie image of John Garfield, the most modern of 1940's Hollywood actors, finds him hurrying furtively through a shabby Manhattan neighborhood late at night to keep an assignation with some shady characters in a desolate Edward Hopper cafe. Stopping for a moment, he bends under a street lamp, cupping his hands to light a cigarette, his hat tilted down over one eyebrow, the collar of his overcoat turned up against the late-November chill.

“As the match flares, its light etches a face that is puffy and smudged with weariness but still strikingly handsome. Squinting through his fatigue into the blue-gray smoke, his eyes are hard and hyper vigilant, glittering with a fateful sense of his own destiny. A sad little smile begins to curl around the corners of his sensual lips, and you sense a lurking vulnerability beneath the hard-boiled shell.

“This sensitive tough guy, an urban sharpie who has doggedly pulled himself up from poverty while somehow retaining a tarnished soulfulness, is the archetypal John Garfield character. Hollywood's original forlorn rebel, born Jacob Julius Garfinkle on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1913, Garfield preceded Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean in Hollywood's pantheon of sexy, emotionally wounded antiheroes. Despite his influence, the star, whose career was stunted by the anti-Communist witch hunts (he died in 1952 at the age of 39), remains one of the most underappreciated screen actors of his era.

“Maybe it's because the character he introduced on the screen, a non-Irish ethnic New Yorker with a street accent (in his case, Jewish), has been interpreted and reinterpreted with such ferocious realism by so many others that his successors have partly succeeded in erasing his memory. Yet the incendiary performances of James Caan, Al Pacino and especially of Robert De Niro, the contemporary actor he most resembles, all have the seeds of Garfield in them. “

Read Part 2 of John Garfield, Film Noir and the Hollywood Blacklist.




There's a Facebook page for fans of John Garfield.

If you love film noir, check out the Film Noir Foundation.

Writer and film critic Kim Morgan's blog: Sunset Gun.

@ your library interview with film noir historian Alan K. Rode - Film Noir--Stylish Crime Dramas that Stand the Test of Time

At the Center of the Storm: He Ran All the Way and the Hollywood Blacklist (PDF)



Books about John Garfield:

John Garfield: His Life and Films
James N. Beaver, Jr., (1978).

The Films of John Garfield
Howard Gelman, (1975).

John Garfield: The Illustrated Career in Films and on Stage
Patrick J. McGrath, (1993).

John Garfield
George Morris, (1977).

He Ran All the Way: A Biography of John Garfield
Robert Nott, (2003).

City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield
Robert L. Sklar, (1992).

Body and Soul: The Story of John Garfield
Larry Swindel, (1975).

Books about film noir:

Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir
Eddie Muller - Film Noir Foundation founder, (1998).

Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir
Eddie Muller - Film Noir Foundation founder, (2001).

The Art of Noir: Posters and Graphics from the Classic Film Noir Era
Eddie Muller - Film Noir Foundation founder, (2002).

Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy
Alan Rode - Film Noir Foundation Board of Director, (2008).

The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir
Foster Hirsch (Film Noir Foundation Board Member)

Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir
Foster Hirsch - Film Noir Foundation Board Member, (1999).

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thanks for letting us know about garfield and the film noir foundation. now i have a great list of new films to watch.

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