Monday, June 20, 2011


I hesitate to be too enthusiastic about this film, for fear of overselling what is essentially a solidly made, minor-key melodrama, but for what was probably intended as a classy B-film to highlight a couple of up-and-coming stars, this is good stuff. One night on the docksides, John Garfield, a small-time racketeer, comes skulking out of the fog, having just set fire to a small fishing boat. His racket is "insurance," and the fire is intended as a warning for tailor Thomas Mitchell and cook John Qualen; Garfield is trying to force them into paying him a weekly sum not to torch their boat. Mitchell's daughter (Ida Lupino) is dating Eddie Albert, a sweet but unambitious guy, but when Garfield starts paying attention to her, her frustration with her boring dockside life bubbles over and she begins making plans to run off to Cuba with him (not realizing how he's treating her father). When Garfield finds out that Mitchell has saved up some money as a down payment on a new boat, he tries to get the money from him, but this time Mitchell and Qualen decide not to be pushed around.

There are lots of things I like about this movie. Though the sets are a bit stagy, they are effective and atmospheric. Oddly, the outdoor scenes, usually thick with fog, feel more claustrophobic than the indoor scenes; the two main interiors, the tailor shop and a restaurant called Caroline's Fish Grotto, are spacious, far more than real dockside storefronts would be. The acting is solid all around. Garfield is tops playing a real shit, but for a few minutes, when he’s talking to Lupino about Cuba and possibly getting married, you feel he might actually have a heart. Lupino seems a bit too wordly for her character and Albert’s character is the only one that feels cardboard (the only one who doesn’t seem to change). Mitchell and Qualen are strong, and there's good support from George Tobias as a fellow merchant, Aline MacMahon as Mitchell’s whiny, sickly wife, Leo Gorcey (of the Bowery Boys) as a bartender, and Jerome Cowan as a D.A.

Based on a play by Irwin Shaw, the movie winds up being a celebration of ordinary folks (the play was called "The Gentle People"). When Mitchell tries to warn Lupino about Garfield, she replies, with a wisdom beyond her years, "That’s the way the world’s made--the strong take from the weak," clearly understanding that people like her father are among the weak, but here the weak manage to come out on top, at least briefly. As one character says, the ordinary can still love each other "just like millionaires and poets." The film's ending (reminiscent of a central plot twist in Dreiser's "An American Tragedy") is different from the play's, due mostly to the Production Code, but I was still surprised at how much the film gets away with in terms of not punishing certain behavior that could be argued to be immoral; in the last scene, even the neighborhood cop has to look the other way. It would be nice if this little film made it onto DVD someday (maybe as part of a John Garfield boxed set), but until then, watch the TCM schedule for a rerun. [TCM]

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