directed by Jean Negulesco, starring John Garfield
(Note: This is my entry in the John Garfield Blogathon, hosted by Patti at They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To, in honor of the actor's 100th birthday.)
Like so many other returning soldiers, Nick Blake (John Garfield) just wants to come home to his girl. Unfortunately for Nick, his girl Toni (Faye Emerson) isn't the kind of woman that waits at home for her man. She's more the kind of woman that runs around with other guys and loses all of her boyfriend's money. But Nick isn't your normal ex-G.I. either. He's a conman, able to twist people around his finger with just a few words. Wanting to get away from Toni and the New York confidence racket, Nick heads to L.A. with his loyal friend Al (George Tobias). Maybe a rest in the California sunshine will clear his head.
However, Nick won't be able to resist the allure of the con game for long. He's soon roped into another scheme, masterminded by his rival Doc Ganson (George Coulouris). There's a rich, young widow in town (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and a ladies' man like Nick could easily talk her into sinking money in a phony business. In order to get Nick on his side, Doc teams up with an old friend of Nick's, Pop Gruber (Walter Brennan), an old hand at the con game who's since fallen on hard times. By playing on Nick's vanity and restlessness, the con artists rope the young man into their scheme.
To his own amazement, Nick slowly finds himself falling for the beautiful, yearning woman he's supposed to swindle. But what hope could he have for a life with her now, when all of his allies and enemies are circling round them? Like sharks scenting blood in the water, they won't leave until they get their take. No matter who gets hurt along the way...
A troubled hero, a pile of cash, scheming side characters, and the faintest possibility for redemption. Nobody Lives Forever has everything it takes to make a great film noir except the killer instinct. Despite the cold futility of its title, it's an oddly gentle film. It focuses on the clash of two very different ways of living. On the one hand we have New York, personified by the restless, cynical con artist Nick Blake and his cohorts. On the other hand we have Los Angeles, portrayed as a land of dreamy sunshine and relaxation, ripe with suckers like the lonely widow Gladys Halvovsen. The surprise is that the film doesn't automatically assume that this will all end in disaster. Instead, it's more a story of romance, as the troubled Nick begins to realize that he belongs more with Gladys than he does with his old crowd. Nobody Lives Forever is more of a meander through darkness than a blind alley. The fact that it works as well as it does rests largely on the strength of its performances.
John Garfield is given one of the oldest plots in the book, the criminal that falls in love with his prey. Somehow, he makes it not only believable but utterly moving and real. Nick begins the film as a supposedly great con man, a plot contrivance that's hard to buy when your main character entrusts 50,000 dollars to the vampish arms of Faye Emerson. But Garfield sells it, conveying Nick's intelligence through his constant movement and searching gaze. His response to Emerson's betrayal is only a quick slap, but it makes you wonder how Garfield would have handled the grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy. Later, as he slowly opens up to Geraldine Fitzgerald, Garfield's eyes light up with boyish wonder, marveling at the sensation of being sincere for the first time.
John Garfield was one of those actors that could simultaneously convince you of his toughness and his deep emotional need. The part of Nick Blake was originally meant for Humphrey Bogart but watching the film, it's hard to want anyone but Garfield in the role. Bogart is a little too smart for all this, a little too closed-off. He had the dark, calculating intelligence of the true noir hero but Garfield had the battered, bruised heart. His characters might fall to the dark side but they always yearn to go back, to return to innocence and comfort.
Aside from Garfield, we have a wealth of entertaining side characters. George Coulouris isn't the most menacing of film hoodlums but what can you expect from the actor most famous for getting beaten up by a kid with a sled? However, his brand of reserved, pop-eyed resentment is exactly right for the character of Doc, a semi-comic thug fighting to conceal how much he hates relying on the younger, more attractive Nick. Coulouris' best moment is undoubtedly the scene where Doc tries to protest to his gang that he could just as easily seduce the mark as Nick could. For a man that never once looks comfortable anywhere, you have to admire his faith in his own sexiness.
Walter Brennan gives a fine, subtle performance here as the old timer Pop, now reduced to selling looks through a telescope and picking his customers' pockets. I've never cared much for Brennan and I never could understand why Ford and Hawks loved his overdone comic relief so much. But I've decided the man was much better when he could play it simple and straight. Pop knows his time as a big shot will never come back; when he calls to people to "see the moon and stars all for a dime," it feels like a sadly poetic way to sum up the con artist's existence.
Like so many other Warners films, Nobody Lives Forever always has one eye on the side characters, giving little curlicues of personality to even the most throw-away parts. So we have a business manager that can't talk about anything but golf, a cafe owner that gets agitated by the word "java," and a wisecracking bellhop that used to be a jockey. The only character that falls flat is Toni, Nick's ex-girlfriend.
Normally in film noir, you'd expect the bad girl to steal the show. But Nick's treacherous old flame Toni is nothing more than a grade-A, lemon-sucking pill, the kind of woman that double-crosses a man and gets mad when he returns the favor. Faye Emerson, with her sunken cheeks and big dark eyes, looks the part well enough. But when John Garfield follows up a tender kiss with a contemptuous slap, Emerson just looks annoyed. A true femme fatale would look back at him with pure, lustful vengeance. The script uses Toni mainly as a plot device, plunking her down in the story only long enough to scatter the chess pieces.
This leaves the stage wide open for Geraldine Fitzgerald to capture attention as the elegant but naive prey, Gladys Halvorsen. Fitzgerald was a stunning Irish redhead, best known for the role of Isabella in Wuthering Heights. Onscreen she had an air of respectability masking inner smolder. The character of Gladys is maybe a little too innocent to be believed, but Fitzgerald adds a lot of dignity to the role, making Garfield's attraction to her wholly believable. The chemistry between them is all the stronger for their differences; it's the street kid wooing the princess. Fitzgerald has one of the more unusual Irish accents I've heard. Not a lilt or a brogue but a few exotic intonations here and there that make her sound positively Hedy Lamarr-ish at times.
Director Jean Negulesco has perhaps a little too light of a touch for the material here and the film doesn't have the rat-a-tat energy of the typical Warners crime film. On the other hand, the leisurely pace does give time for little vignettes. Negulesco perfectly illustrates the culture gap between his romantic leads by showing a scene of Gladys flinching at a prizefight, followed by Nick at the symphony, folding his concert program into a paper airplane. It's hard not to like these people.
As a true noir aficionado, I can't recommend Nobody Lives Forever as a pure example of the genre but on its own merits, it's a fine film to spend a few hours on. It has enjoyable characters, a straightforward plot, and a strong lead performance by John Garfield. Nobody lives forever but good films live long in the memory. And this one does.
"Now look here, fellas, I hate the word 'java' and I hate to be called 'buddy' and 'pal,' I just can't stand it."
There's a kind of poignancy and nervous ardor to the relationship between Nick and Gladys. Like all characters in film noir, they know how fragile happiness can be (he's a soldier, she's a widow) and it gives their scenes together an extra jolt of romance that offsets the movie's cynical humor. For the moment where they confess their love, Negulesco pulls out all the stops. The lovers take a side trip to the Mission Church of San Juan Capistrano, wandering around crumbling pillars and waving trees. As Gladys walks down the path, a flock of white birds fly in front of her, their bodies blending into the pattern of her beautiful dress. The mood is hushed and peaceful. Gladys looks at Nick with unease, sensing that this is not a guy that chooses to visit old churches. "Maybe we should have gone to the beach." Nick assures her that "this is swell" but his gaze flickers around. You can see that he's not uncomfortable here and the very fact of this surprises him. They go into the chapel, talk to the priest, and walk some more.
All the while, you can feel Nick's tension; he knows something new is happening to him and he can't understand it. Garfield's performance is pitched so perfectly that all the character's repressed feelings come through in his eyes and his voice and the way he shoves his hands in his pockets. All of a sudden, he begins to tell Gladys about how it reminds him of the churches he saw in Italy as a soldier. "All wrecked...statues all over the place, paintings ripped to pieces, everything smashed." He admits he'd forgotten it until now and it makes him wonder why people can't get along in the world, just be happy. "Are you happy?" Gladys asks. "I wasn't," Nick whispers, realizing everything in that instant. "Until I met you." Their lips meet.
Final Six Words:
Shady dealings can promise sunny futures