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December 2010

The Fallen Sparrow

cast: John Garfield, Maureen O'Hara, Walter Slezak, and Martha O'Driscoll

director: Richard Wallace

90 minutes (PG) 1943
Odeon DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Fallen Sparrow

Just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean that people aren't out to get you. The first of three films to be adapted from the works of Edgar award-winning hardboiled crime and mystery novelist Dorothy B. Hughes, The Fallen Sparrow is a fascinating blend of two different forms of crime narrative: on the one hand, the film is a horrifying existentialist yarn about a veteran of the Spanish civil war who returns home only to be driven mad by resurfacing memories of torture and mass killings.

On the other hand, the film is a punchily written spy story in the grand tradition of The 39 Steps (1935) in which a heroic outsider investigates the death of a friend whilst being stalked by sinister Nazi agents. The beauty of the film lies in its willingness to switch back and forth, seemingly at random, between these two very different registers. Each shift ramps up the tension. Each shift poses more and more questions of the two different ways of seeing the film. The result is an intensely clever - and at times intensely silly - and self-aware thriller that is draped in madness and existential malaise.

We first encounter John 'Kit' McKittrick (John Garfield) on a train pulling into New York. As the train passes through a tunnel, Kit gets a glimpse of his reflection in the darkened window. He seems both disconcerted and surprised to see himself looking back. It is almost as though he does not quite recognise himself.

From there, we follow Kit as he walks into a downtown police station in search of a detective who used to work with his father. Kit not only acts as though he owns the place, he acts like the caricature of a wise-guy private investigator: his dialogue is smarter, his clothes spiffier and his intelligence more keen than the grey, plodding but nonetheless real detectives who inhabit the station house. Upon leaving the station, Kit asks whether his gun permit is still valid. The detective asks him what he needs a gun for and Kit replies with a shit-eating grin "to shoot people, sweetheart!"

The fog of uncertainty surrounding Kit's nature then expands again as he reconnects with all of his old friends. Indeed, despite being the son of a police detective, Kit seems to be connected to the very cream of Manhattan society: cream that is very glad to welcome back a particular hepcat. As Kit greets all of his old friends we learn that he is not only a veteran of the Spanish civil war but an escaped prisoner who was psychologically and physically tortured by Franco and his Nazi allies.

Kit is back in town to investigate the death of an old friend, a police detective who helped him escape from Franco's prison camp. What is fascinating about this part of the film is the number of bizarre gaps in Kit's story. What was an American socialite doing fighting with the International Brigades in Spain? Why was he tortured for over two years? How did a lowly New York police detective manage to arrange a trans-Atlantic prison break? A cynic might be tempted to explain away such a quirky background in terms of sloppy research and underwriting, but the sheer oddness of Kit's story fosters a sense of ontological unease surrounding the character. Kit is larger than life; he burns far more brightly than the people around him begging the question: is Kit insane? Is he a liar? Or do Kit's friends have something to hide?

This tension gradually increases as Kit discovers that his circle of friends has drawn in a number of Norwegian and French exiles. These people too are larger than life. For example, Dr Christian Skaas (Walter Slezak) is a Norwegian historian fond of attending up-scale cocktail parties and holding court on different forms of torture while Toni Donne (Maureen O'Hara) is the icily beautiful granddaughter of a French prince, reduced to working as a model in a hat shop. Mix in a Teutonic goon, a furiously sinister accompanist, and a feisty nightclub singer and you have a colourful cast of characters. But Kit is the most colourful of all. He hears things.

At various moments throughout the film, Kit becomes gripped by a form of mania. His face becomes covered in sweat, his eyes blaze and his head resonates with the imagined sounds of dripping water and a foot dragged by a limping man. Kit blots these sounds out by bashing away at pianos, throwing open windows in snow storms and blotting out the terror with strong drink and loud jazz. He is clearly on the brink of mental collapse... the only question is whether he has yet to stumble over the edge.

Kit soon becomes convinced that his torturers have not only followed him back to America but that they were responsible for the death of his friend. This apparent fantasy then appears to grow and grow as the desperate Kit picks up on various facts and weaves them into his delusions. For example, after being brow-beaten by the senile prince, he becomes convinced that he was tortured for two years because he refused to surrender his unit's 'battle standard' to Franco's goons. This standard is not mentioned before the prince mentions his family's battle standard and, frankly, it seems unlikely that the kind of socialist freedom fighters portrayed in Ken Loach's Land And Freedom (1995) would march into battle with a bloody great standard. There are also a number of tense confrontations with people who may or may not have actually been there.

Is Kit insane or are the Nazis genuinely after him? The film does eventually answer this question but it does so in a way that neatly undercuts the film's two dramatically contrasting registers. Sometimes monsters do things for very mundane reasons and sometimes ordinary people are forced into performing monstrous acts.

Over and above the obvious strength of Hughes' original story, The Fallen Sparrow benefits hugely from a sharp script by Warren Duffy - the man behind two of Jimmy Cagney's greatest works, Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), and The Oklahoma Kid (1939) - atmospheric cinematography by Nicholas Musacara, and an Oscar-nominated score by C. Bakaleinikoff and Roy Webb - who was nominated a total of seven times for the 200 or so films he scored and arranged during a career spanning over 30 years.

The script and technical elements of the film mesh perfectly with a beautiful mixture of scenery-chewing and oddly understated performances. Indeed, Slezak cuts an almost absurd figure as a sinister academic while O'Hara plays fantastically against type by trading in her traditionally passionate red-headed performances for a subdued and icy turn as an astonishing combination of vulnerable love interest and cerebral femme fatale.

At the time of its release, The Fallen Sparrow was a huge commercial success but it has since fallen from view, hence its release as a part of a range of budget - and entirely free of extras! - DVDs. Hopefully this re-release will give an intelligent and well-made psychological thriller a second chance at a place in cinema history. I can certainly think of a number of well-loved film noirs that are less worthy of your time. It's warmly recommended.



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