Our crime cinema retrospective continues with a look at one of the most impressive and paranoid thrillers of the 1950s.
John Garfield’s final film (within a year of this 1951 production, the blacklisted actor was dead, aged 39), He Ran All the Way is a quite extraordinary piece of cinema – a post-noir crime drama so intense, gritty and subversive that you have to wonder how a film like this crept under the radar of the moralists, especially when the star and the writers – Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler, the former hiding behind the name of fellow writer Guy Endore – were either blacklisted or suspected of Communist affiliations under the McCarthy witch hunts. It’s a film of sweaty intensity and moral ambiguity that ensures that you are never really certain about the motives and feelings of the central characters right up to the end.
The film starts off at a sprint. Garfield is Nick Robey, a small-time hood who we first see being harangued by his blousy mother (Gladys George) and then forced out onto the streets where he runs into Al (Norman Lloyd), a fellow hoodlum who wants him to act as the muscle in a payroll robbery. But this supposedly simple mugging goes wrong almost immediately, and the pair find themselves in the middle of a frantic shoot out with the cops, in which both Al and a police officer are killed. Panicking, Robey goes on the run and ends up at a public pool, where he tries to blend in with the swimming crowd and escape the pursuing police. In the pool, he runs (or swims, more precisely) into young Peggy Dobbs (Shelly Winters) and immediately makes a play at picking her up. Right away, we are unsure of his motives – is he genuinely attracted to her, or just looking for a cover to throw the cops off his tail (because who would look less like a fleeing cop killer than a guy on a date?).
Robey talks Peggy into letting him escort her home and then wangles an invite into her apartment, which she shares with her parents (Wallace Ford and Selena Royle) and kid brother Tommy (Robert Hyatt). Robey initially manages to charm them, but when they leave for a trip to the movies, his twitchy paranoia and intensity puts Peggy on edge. These early moments are full of tension – the socially awkward young woman, clearly not used to the attention of men, trying to make sense of his crazed mood swings; and the killer, ten grand in his pockets, paranoid that the cops will be coming for him at any moment. Eventually, he snaps, pulls out a gun and takes Peggy and her returning family hostage.
Initially, Robey’s plan is to simply hide out for the night, waiting for the heat to die down, but he immediately makes dreadful blunders, revealing his name to the Dobbs family thinking they will have seen it in the press – in fact, they had no idea who he was. Once he finds out that both Al and the cop are dead, his situation becomes even more desperate. He allows some of the family to leave the apartment and go to work in order to avoid suspicion, knowing that they won’t tell the cops as long as he holds one of them hostage, and the film follows their tortured impotence as they try to deal with the situation, functioning as normal while knowing that they are still essentially the captives of a psychotic killer. Meanwhile, Robey seems unaware or in denial of how this situation is affecting them, even trying to be friendly. There’s a remarkably tense scene where he makes Tommy buy a turkey and all the trimmings, only to sit amazed and then insulted as the family choose to eat stew rather than the sumptuous meal he has provided. This quiet act of defiance – and his determination to break it – is amazing, a scene of subtle intensity that shows how far from reality Robey is.
Then there’s Peg, who he blows hot and cold with, insulting and rejecting her before suddenly coming around when she arrives home dolled up with a new dress and hairdo. The question is – why? It’s a deliberate effort to make him see her as attractive, certainly, but we are unsure if this is because she is actually in love with him or because she wants to save her family by agreeing to leave with him. Maybe it’s a bit of both. He sends her out to buy a car, but when it fails to be delivered on time, he gets more panicky, convinced he is being set up.
The moral ambiguity at the centre of this home invasion story is what moves it from merely being an effective noir film to something more. We never quite know what the truth of the relationship between Robey and Peggy is from either side, even after the film has finished and the evidence about whether or not she had betrayed him is revealed. It’s more than likely that the characters themselves don’t know either, and this is one film where you imagine the aftermath for all involved will never be a happy one, no matter how the movie ends. The events of this story will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Garfield is impressively twitchy as Robey – at 39, he’s clearly far too old to be playing a wild street punk, but he manages to make us forget that thanks to his frantic and desperate performance where he ranges from cruel and vicious to confused and pathetic. He manages to make Robey – in truth a fairly irredeemable character – seem almost sympathetic at times, and is pathetically victimised himself; if ever a criminal was the result of circumstance and upbringing, it’s this one. Like many a film noir character, he seems doomed even before this disastrous criminal endeavour, a man who was always going to lead a short and miserable life due to circumstances beyond his control or understanding. Garfield’s performance is matched by Winters, who is tragically vulnerable and easily manipulated, and seems so desperate simply to be noticed and appreciated by anyone that even the attentions of a man pointing a gun at her are better than nothing.
The supporting cast is all great too – Ford is all-too-convincing as the impotently frustrated father, Royle stoically defiant and George as cynical and unpleasant as you might expect the mother of this cheap thug would be. Director John Berry brings all this together in such a claustrophobic and frenetic manner that every moment feels energised, even though much of the film takes place in a single room – and the cramped location helps intensify the sense of everyone involved being trapped.
While critically admired, it’s not a film that you often see listed as one of the greats of the genre or the time period and it has perhaps been overlooked by more traditional Noir titles. It’s a film that has, in that sense, slipped through the cracks to a certain degree. But make no mistake – He Ran All the Way is marvellous, provocative and essential cinema.
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