***** out of 5
It seemed oddly fitting that on Black Friday I got around to taking in this 1951 film, written by, directed by, and starring blacklisted artists. Scripted by uncredited Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler, and directed by John Berry(who would go into voluntary exile to France to escape the McCarthy era) this story is about as lean and mean as you are likely to find in a noir film of this era.
Add to those names the contributions of Franz Waxman's always-excellent noir score and the cinematographic genius of James Wong Howe, and you've got a recipe for greatness. Topping it all off is a top-notch cast that is headlined by John Garfield in his last screen role before his early death from heart trouble (and blacklist troubles) at 39.
Garfield here plays Nick Robey, a no-good, shiftless guy who lives in filthy squalor with a mother(Gladys George) who is as loving and motherly as a crocodile. Their opening exchange is classic biting Trumbo dialogue. the sample below is the more friendly of their words to one another:
Mrs. Robey: "If you were a man, you'd be out looking for a job."
Nick Robey: "If you were a man, I'd kick your teeth in."
He teams up with fellow lowlife Al Molin (Norman Lloyd, who still works in Hollywood today, most recently appearing in a bit part in Trainwreck earlier this year), and pull a poorly planned payroll heist, in which his dreams of running and having to shoot a man prove prescient.
Al is hit in a shootout, and Nick ducks into a public pool to hide, where he meets a somewhat naive blonde named Peggy Dobbs (Shelley Winters). He tags along with her to her home, and ends up having to hole up there, keeping her family under his control at gunpoint. This is where the bulk of the drama unfolds. They go about their daily routine, but always with the threat of the frightened but dangerous gunman in their midst.
In varying degrees we see Stockholm syndrome occurring in each of the characters; Winters and Garfield begin to feel an attraction they don't know quite what to do with, and the tension between their feelings and their individual needs to survive form the central conflict of the story.
Wallace Ford is stirring in the role of the family's father figure, Fred Dobbs, a man who is initially unsure of himself in how to respond to this threat that has entered his home, but who ultimately finds the courage to face down the intruder. We see him fighting for the survival of his family, at times literally, at other times ethically, but always in a way that is human and relatable. Selena Royle is also very good as his wife, showing bravery in the most challenging kind of situation a mother can face. Bobby Hyatt completes the family unit as kid brother Tommy Dobbs, in an excellent junior performance that is genuine in its depiction of a child's conflicted emotional response to a situation he is unsure how to face - at times brave, terrified, and inquisitive.
The final confrontation is complex in its emotional and symbolic depth. The face-off between Ford, Garfield, and Winters is gripping and tragic for all three characters. Ford finally has had enough of cowering, and boldly takes his stand. Winters, too, must make a choice between her painful attachment to this killer and the true love of the family he threatens to destroy. And Garfield is heartbreaking in his inability to trust or love. We realize in these last moments that he never learned how, because his mother was never able to show him. It is not the bravery of Ford or Winters that stops him, it is his own weakness that sends him crawling right back to die in the gutter he came from, just inches out of reach of the one chance he had at life and love.