Monday, March 4, 2013

Movie Review: Nobody Lives Forever

Nobody Lives Forever (1946)
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.

Favorite Quote: 

"Now look here, fellas, I hate the word 'java' and I hate to be called 'buddy' and 'pal,' I just can't stand it."

Favorite Scene:

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


  1. Great post, I'll definately have to check this film out.

  2. Great in-depth review and choice of illustrations, Aubyn. I've just seen this in the last few days and must agree it is rather gentle and maybe rather slow-paced for a noir - not living up to the bleakness of its title - but I did find it enjoyable to watch. I was fascinated to hear from your review that Bogart was originally intended for the role; I'm sure he would have been great but that the film would have felt different and probably darker with him. Anyway, Garfield is ideally cast here and it was nice to see Geraldine Fitzgerald as a lead after admiring her as Isabella in 'Wuthering Heights'.

    I really like your point about how both Gladys and Nick know how fragile happiness can be - Gladys has suffered even though she seems so quiet and sheltered. Also at the very start we see that Nick has got away from his criminal self in the war and there is a feeling that his experiences there must have changed him as he tries to go back to the old conman way of life. I do agree that it's hard to believe a top conman would merrily give $50,000 to Toni, and also agree that her character is a weak point! I also felt there was a bit too much comic relief (I got impatient with the cafe scenes), but I really liked George Coulouris in this and also in another Garfield movie I've seen recently, 'Between Two Worlds' - he brings so much simmering intensity and always makes the film feel like more of a true noir. Judy

  3. Great review, Aubyn, and a wonderful addition to the blogathon. Thanks so much for participating.

    Like you and Judy, I don't consider this a true noir. Often, I find on Net Flix or even IMDB that films are classified as noir, but I don't see them that way at all. At any rate, this is still a very enjoyable movie. I am always a sucker for the "bad guy has a change of heart" storyline. It never grows old for me.

    I read in Mr. Garfield's bio that he had long-admired Geraldine Fitzgerald's work, so he quite welcomed the opportunity to play opposite her.

    Interesting about Humphrey Bogart and this role. Seems like that was often happening at Warners. Most everyone knows that Bogey's breakthrough role in "High Sierra" was originally offered to George Raft, but he turned it down. In the Garfield bio, I learned that he, too, turned it down (after Raft), then it went to Bogey...and, of course, it launched Bogart to stardom. Had both men made different career choices, the Garfield name might have the recognition and appreciation Bogart's does.

    Again, thank you so much for taking part in blogathon. Your article was a great addition to the event.

  4. Once again, you review another movie I've been on the fence about seeing, and you've convinced me to give it a try.

    I agree with you on Brennan. Another showcase for his talents is 1940's The Westerner with Gary Cooper. Brennan basically carries the picture, and as Judge Roy Bean you'd think he'd take advantage to chew the heck out of the scenery, but all in all, it's a very appropriate, good performance.

    "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. " That's an excellent summary of their different talents as Noir actors.

  5. I love con men (fictional ones, I mean), so this is definitely going on my to-watch list! Thanks!

  6. Great review! The only thing I've seen Fitzgerald in is Wuthering Heights, so I'd love to check this out!

  7. Alyssa LM: It's definitely a treat, albeit a modest one. By all means, go check it out.

    Movieclassics: I think intelligent comments like yours deserve more in-depth movie reviews than mine. Bogart could definitely have tackled the redemptive love angle (the man did Casablanca after all) but he was was always more of a pessimistic presence on film. Plus, I don't know, there's something a little "off" about the idea of Bogart seducing women on a regular basis. More often, the women seduce him! And I hope it didn't seem like I was dissing George Coulouris for not being very threatening here since I think he's perfect for what the role requires.

  8. Patti: Thanks for the kind words and for hosting this great blogathon! You deserve all the credit. I agree that some films get tagged as "noir" that don't really fit the genre. That's an interesting note about Garfield in High Sierra. Although he would have been awfully young for Roy Earle, even Bogey had to get "aged up" for it. Still, I could see him in a lot of the Bogart roles, even if I get too much pleasure from Bogart's acting to trade him.

    Laura: You're the third person who's recommended The Westerner to me so I guess I really must see it. I'm looking forward to Brennan as a villain. It might even redeem him for that interminable "dead bee" routine in To Have and Have Not.

    Hamlette: I enjoy fictional con artists too so long as the movie/book doesn't try to pull one of those annoying "everything you thought was a lie" plot twists at the end.

    JG: It's been so long since I've seen Wuthering Heights that I don't remember her performance but by all accounts, Fitzgerald was a very respected actress at the time. I haven't seen any of her other movies and I really should. Did I mention that I love the outfit she wears to visit the church, with those long white gloves and scarf and flowered skirt? Talk about times changing, nowadays the only place you'd see something like that would be a wedding.

  9. Lovely look at the depth Garfield brought to this role as only he could.

  10. Excellent review, Aubyn! Another Garfield film I've never seen, but your in-depth critique brought the film to life. I do have to disagree with you re: Walter Brennan, who I love in virtually everything. I think he's good when he's broad, as in RIO BRAVO as Stumpy, or when he's subtle and menacing, as in THE WESTERNER or MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.

  11. Caftan Woman: I agree that Garfield takes a stock character and breathes life into him. Nice to hear from you.

    Jeff Fluger: Good to hear another take on Walter Brennan, I'm always open to dissenting opinions. He was quite good here and I didn't have a problem with him in My Darling Clementine.

  12. Aubyn, a great post in your typically comprehensive style. I saw this awhile back and somehow it never struck me as a noir either, or even a noir wannabe, maybe because of the romance films Negulesco often directed in the forties. Before he got stuck directing slick films in the fifties, he made some pretty interesting movies. As you observed, here he takes one of the oldest plots in the book--the conman falling in love with his mark--and breathes life into it. As you also observed, he's helped immensely by his cast. He was always known for getting outstanding performances from his actresses--Joan Crawford in "Humoresque" also with Garfield (my own favorite Crawford performance), Ida Lupino, Jane Wyman (directing her to an Oscar), and here Geraldine Fitzgerald. Her work here and for Negulesco the year before in a very good film called "Three Strangers" shows that she's another of those talented actresses who excelled when given the right role and director but had all too few chances to demonstrate this. I didn't used to see much to like in Walter Brennan either, but now he's my no. 1 favorite character actor of the studio days!

  13. Aubyn, I like a hard-boiled noir as much as anyone - but I'm really a sucker for tough guys with who have gentle, aching hearts beneath it all, with hopes of redemption! I like Geraldine Fitzgerald, too, though I actually first saw her in THREE STRANGERS, quite different from this film or WUTHERING HEIGHTS. You've really got me interested in keeping an eye out for NOBODY LIVES FOREVER next time it's on TCM or any other channel! :-D BRAVA on your terrific post!

  14. Great review. I burned this movie on John Garfield day either last year or the year before. I think the reason the film is good is due to the great actors Warner Brothers used or had under contract. John Garfield, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Walter Brennan, and Faye Emerson could always elevate the material they were given. While its not really noir, it is an example of how Warner Brothers could make something out of very little.

  15. Sorry guys, for being a bit late in responding to all your great comments.

    R.D. Finch: I've been dying to see both Three Strangers and Humoresque. Both are movies that aren't particularly famous but film buffs seem to cherish them.

    DorianTB: I'm a sucker for those plots too, as can be evidenced by my fondness for The Reckless Moment, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, and many other similar films. Although I think Nobody Lives Forever is a touch softer than those other films, I think it does convey the same kind of yearning for redemption and love.

    Gilby37: Good point. I agree that with different actors the material might look pretty threadbare.

  16. Aubyn,
    I didn't get it together in time to do the Garfield Blogathon but I've been enjoying the posts. You've contributed a very interesting review here.

    Garfield isn't one of my favorite actors but I do appreciate his range and dedication to his craft. I know he would be pleased with your review here.

    All the best!

  17. Page: Glad you decided to drop by even if Garfield isn't one of your favorites. I'm not sure if he's one of mine yet, but I did really love him here where his performance held the movie together.