Friday, December 2, 2011

THE FALLEN SPARROW: Surrender to Dorothy!

Before we begin, here's a NEWS FLASH for folks playing Page's Six Degrees of Separation game: our awesome fellow blogger Monty of All Good Things passed the baton to me, since the next Six Degrees involved linking Gert Frobe to Goldie Hawn. To my surprise, I got it in one stroke: Frobe and Goldie Hawn were both in the 1971 caper comedy "$" (a.k.a. Dollars). So I picked Myrna Loy and Danny Kaye for the next challenge for awesome fellow blogger Lara from Backlots. Thanks!

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Author Dorothy B. Hughes
And now for our feature presentation,  the subject of this week’s blog post, the 1943 film version of Hughes’ paranoid wartime thriller The Fallen Sparrow (TFS)!  Novelist Dorothy B. Hughes knew how to build a good head of paranoia and suspense in her novels. No wonder Hollywood knocked on her door after her first novel, The So Blue Marble (1940), became a best-seller! Three of Hughes’ 15 suspense thrillers were made into classic movies, including In a Lonely Place in 1950; Ride the Pink Horse in 1947; and of course, TFS. RKO skillfully and faithfully adapted Hughes’ novel for the silver screen. Director Richard Wallace (this versatile director’s wide variety of films included Captain Caution, Framed, and It’s in the Bag!), screenwriter Warren Duff, and editor Robert Wise had their hands full trying to condense the novel’s complicated relationships and events without watering it down. Hughes’ thrillers were brilliant, with memorable characters, but her plots are also quite complex, keeping readers on their toes as well as on the edge of their seats. It was worth it; all concerned did a masterful job of bringing TFS to the big screen!

Don't you love film/book tie-ins?
Set in November 1940, TFS starts with the quote “ a world at war many sparrows must fall....” The film brings us into the mindset of troubled yet determined hero John “Kit” McKittrick (John Garfield). Lt. Louie Lepetino, Kit’s boyhood friend, had helped him escape the Spanish prison where he’d been tortured for two agonizing years after the Spanish Civil War. Returning to New York City from a ranch rest cure, Kit’s stunned to discover that Louie’s been killed in a 12-story fall from a window at a swanky party for two wartime refugees, Dr. Skaas (Walter Slezak) and his nephew Otto (Hugh Beaumont before his TV stardom on Leave it to Beaver). Hell-bent on proving Louie’s death was neither accidental nor a suicide, Kit starts sleuthing, with help from pal Ab Parker (the likable Bruce Edwards, who earned his first film credit in TFS after many uncredited roles). Kit’s grim goal: killing Louie’s killer.

Does that look like the
French Connection movie ad, or what?
Hughes sure knew how to grip a reader with suspense while evoking the feeling and atmosphere of wintertime World War 2 Manhattan, even if some of her turns of phrase (such as a reference to one character’s “wrathy eyes”) looked a little odd to this modern reader. Her portrait of the era’s upscale cafĂ© society characters and their milieu is presented with both glamour and bitterness as seen through war veteran Kit’s eyes. His viewpoint is especially intriguing because, it’s indicated, he’s had trouble fitting in for some time, having been raised in a working class environment only to be shoehorned into the glamorous life when his policeman dad came into money, which only turned into more money when his mother became a widow and married into the upper crust. When I first watched the movie version, I was glad to see the film got that right.

"Dear Louie: I'm out of my hed. O hurry or I may be ded...."

FF #1 Barby Taviton: rich, hot refugee den mother
Kit’s suspects include just about everyone in his upscale circle of friends, especially the women, since he’s gotten it into his head that surely only a dame could’ve gotten close enough to Louie to shove him out a window. The trio of gorgeous suspects include:
FF #2:  Whitney Parker, The "Content Imp" 

Femme Fatale Candidate #1:
Patricia Morison as Kit’s alluring old flame Barby Taviton. Stunning brunette Morison may not look like the blonde Barby described in Hughes’s novel, but she’s got the right sophistication and entitled attitude. Ironically, Morison’s many films included The Song of Bernadette and Song of the Thin Man, but she never sings in TFS! That honor went to:

Femme Fatale Candidate #2: Martha O’Driscoll as Whitney Parker, Ab’s young chanteuse cousin, affectionately nicknamed “The Imp.” The appealing O’Driscoll got plenty of work in the 1940s, including roles in Reap the Wild Wind and The Lady Eve, as well as playing Daisy Mae in the first film version of Li’l Abner from 1940. By the way, Whitney’s name was actually “Content Hamilton” in Hughes’ novel (she was the one with the aforementioned “wrathy eyes”), but I prefer Whitney’s new movie-friendly name. I must admit that as I read the book, my eyes kept tripping over the name “Content”! For all I know, “Content” might have been a popular name for girls back in the early 1930s and ’40s, but to my 21st-century eyes, reading “Content” as a person’s first name looked odd, yanking me out of the story several times before I finally resigned myself to it.

FF #3: Mysterious refugee Toni Donne. God bless America!
Femme Fatale Candidate #3: Team Bartilucci favorite Maureen O’Hara as  lovely, guarded, sad-eyed refugee Toni Donne, who’s falling in love with Kit despite her wariness (admittedly, Kit's a convincing, persistent fella), but there’s some terrible hold over her. O’Hara’s performance is a big change from the fiery, strong-willed redhead we all know and love from The Quiet Man and so many other great films. Somehow I think Toni and House of Cards Anne de Villemont should get together and start a support group for women in sinister neo-Gothic households!

At least Kit doesn't have to sit with Bruno Antony!

But Kit’s biggest obstacle is that he has what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He’s still haunted by the memory of the mysterious man from Franco’s elite Nazi squad, a limping man (called “Wobblefoot” in the novel; in the film, he’s simply “The man who limps”) who tortured Kit relentlessly in his dark cell, trying to make our troubled but determined hero reveal where he’d hidden his regiment’s battle standard. (In the novel, the MacGuffin was a set of fabulous Babylon goblets the defiant Kit took from the enemy. The goblets are in the film, but Duff’s script emphasizes that battle flag and the symbolism behind it.) Even now, Kit struggles against fear as he imagines hearing the drag and thump that signaled his sadistic tormentor’s arrival—or is he imagining it? Terror mounts as Kit slowly realizes his enemies may have followed him home, maybe even planting their spies into every aspect of Kit’s life, placing not only himself in danger, but also his friends and loved ones. Even the innocent Whitney’s accompanist Anton is suspect—especially considering he’s played by young John Banner in his pre-Hogan’s Heroes days!

Kit has a Bernard Herrmann moment. Next time, he should play some nice, soothing violin music!
The role of Kit fits John Garfield like a glove (no, not a boxing glove, though Garfield seemed able to handle himself despite his real-life health issues). Even when his character is fighting his fears, he commands the screen as a working-class, self-described “mug” in gent’s clothing, with a heart full of determination and all-but-shattered ideals. Garfield’s toughness, tenderness, and humor have us rooting for Kit immediately. As in the book, Kit spends lots of time and energy trying to convince himself he’s not afraid, only to be proved wrong, to his frustration. Author Hughes’s haunting descriptions of Kit’s memories of his horrific Spain ordeal in the book are conveyed well in Garfield’s powerful monologue, enhanced by the camera’s slow close-up on his expressive face. The sweat on Garfield’s brow and the twitch in his cheek as he finally faces his enemy during the climax speaks volumes. If you ask me, TFS showcases one of John Garfield’s finest performances; he should have gotten an Oscar nomination!

Smooches, balloons, and plush penguins?
I totally want to know more about Kit and Toni's date!
Lovely Maureen O’Hara tries to downplay her Irish accent, but it still lurks in certain words. While our family adores O’Hara, I’ll admit she wouldn’t have been our first choice as a femme fatale, but Toni’s inner fear and regret come through in O’Hara’s poignant, soulful portrayal, winning my sympathy. O’Hara also has great fire-and-ice chemistry with the intense Garfield. When Kit kissed Toni in the novel, she never kissed back with any kind of enthusiasm, especially considering her cautious-bordering-on-icy reserve. But in this film version, Kit and Toni finally share longing kisses and tender embraces—much more fun to watch!

Walter Slezak’s performance as Dr. Skaas is silkily sinister, though I felt that his true evil nature was telegraphed much earlier than in the book, with his interest in “the cruelties of men towards other men” and “comparing modern scientific torture with the methods of the ancients,” who apparently didn’t mess with victims’ heads enough for Skaas’ liking! An avuncular hybrid of Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Clifton Webb, Slezak is one of 1940s cinema’s most memorable villains.
TFS keeps the paranoia percolating and the suspense simmering. I was especially glad to see that the filmmakers included much of the novel’s best dialogue, with only minor tweaks. They truly evoked the feeling and atmosphere of wintertime World War 2 Manhattan, underscored by Roy Webb and Constantine
Bakaleinikoff’s Oscar-nominated score. Today’s audiences might not understand Kit’s obsession with the battle flag, even with the explanatory scene at Toni’s home. Then again, I bet the men and women now fighting overseas will get the significance of a battle standard and what it symbolizes!

Kit's crowd has the swankiest suspects this side of The Thin Man movies!

Otto and Dr. Skaas dish new tips from Popular Torture Monthly
(Can you believe that's young Hugh Beaumont on the left?
Although Dorothy B. Hughes’s mysteries were best-sellers in her heyday, they seemed to be all but forgotten after she retired to focus on her family. Luckily, the film version of TFS captures her tale of terror beautifully. If you want to read the book, has both new and used paperback editions available so you can rediscover her. Interestingly, the 1988 paperback edition I read had cover art with an uncanny resemblance to, of all things, the movie poster for The French Connection!
On the TCM Web site, writer Andrea Passafiume wrote, “RKO bought the rights to the novel in 1942, but the political backdrop involving Nazi villains and Spanish Fascists was a bit of a hot-button issue at the time. RKO executive William Gordon fired off a memo to producer Robert Fellows that stated his three ‘areas of concern’ about the story’s content: ‘1. Desire of State Department to maintain friendliest relations with present Spanish government. 2. Possibility of Spain as ally. 3. Offensive to most Latin Americans.’ He even suggested that the film’s reference location should be changed from Spain to Nazi-invaded France. Similarly, Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration wrote to RKO saying, ‘We strongly urge that you consult your Foreign Department as to the advisability of the Spanish angle contained in this picture.’ Fellows chose to not be deterred by such warnings and moved forward with the film keeping all political angles and locations intact.”

"Talk treason to me, baby."
TFS brims with ambiance even apart from its palpable paranoid atmosphere. An otherwise decidedly mixed review in The New York Times (and it wasn’t even by the ever-picky Bosley Crowther! The only identification in the Times’ review from August 20th, 1943 were the initials “T.S.”) said,What lifts the film above the merely far-fetched and macabre is largely the skill with which Director Wallace has used both soundtrack and camera to suggest the stresses upon (Kit’s) fear-drenched mind. A street lamp shining through a fire escape throws a lattice across a sweating face; in a shadowy room, the remembered footsteps mingle with the tinkle of a bell and become the sound of dripping water from a leaking faucet. And again, when the climax is being quietly prepared at a refugee gathering in a mansion, the strident strains and swirling skirts of a gypsy dance brush momentarily across the silence between the warring opponents. Through these scenes and others Mr. Garfield remains almost constantly convincing, and without his sure and responsive performance in a difficult role, Mr. Wallace’s effects would have been lost entirely.”  Happily, The Fallen Sparrow is available from Warner Archive for all to enjoy on DVD and downloads!

Who knew John Banner of
Hogan's Heroes was dapper?


  1. Oh well, Dorian, you know that the casting of Walter Slezak in most any film heralds a wicked soul. I would have suspected him immediately. :)

    One of the best books on an actor's life, films and acting is Slezak's WHAT TIME'S THE NEXT SWAN?
    He really was a wonderful writer - very funny.

    I loved him as the clownish villain in the Gene Kelly film, THE PIRATE.

    Anyway, enjoyed reading your complete post. You've given me a good overview on a film I must have missed because the only thing that sounds familiar is the body through the window form of death.

    When I first saw the title I thought it was taken from Emily Dickinson.

    "...if I have lifted a fallen sparrow onto its nest again, I have not lived in vain."

    Or words to that effect. :)

  2. Yvette, I'm glad you enjoyed my FALLEN SPARROW post! Dorothy B. Hughes is the kind of writer I want to be when I grow up! :-) (By the way, I'm in the process of polishing Chapter 27 of THE PARANOIA CLUB. Only a few more chapter to go!)

    You've hit on a basic flaw with casting Walter Slezak: there's always a darn good chance he'll be the bad guy, which kinda takes some of the suspense out of it! Our beloved Laird Cregar has a similar problem. Still, we love them anyway! :-) Thanks for the tip on Slezak's bio WHAT TIME'S THE NEXT SWAN; it sounds like a fun read! I love the Emily Dickinson quote about "fallen sparrows," too; much more upbeat! Always delighted to have you come around and sit a spell, my friend!

  3. Dorian, wonderful post on one of my two favorite"loan out" Garfield films.

  4. Paul 2, thanks for your kind words on my FALLEN SPARROW blog post! I had read that Warner Bros. had loaned out John Garfield for THE FALLEN SPARROW. Pardon my ignorance, but was the other loan-out THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE?

  5. Dorian, some ignorance, Postmen was the second "Loan Out". John sure made some great films in the 40's; Between Two Worlds, Air Force, Pride Of The Marines, and Destination Tokyo during the war.

  6. As you may have figured out, I've got a mouth on me. And as such, I may have ruined this film for The Wife forever.

    We were watching it one night, and near the end, Maureen O'Hara starts explaining her part in the mad plot. She explains that her uncle agreed to participate because he was easily bound to the bad guys with promises; "He's crazy, he thinks they're going to make him the King of France..."

    John Garfield quickly asks what sort of promise they made to her, and pauses dramatically. Before Ms. O'Hara could respond, I piped up for her: "They're gonna make ME the Kind of France."

    She can no longer get through this scene without snickering.

  7. Vinnie speaks the truth! :-) To this day, Vinnie's quip "They're gonna make ME the King of France!" (especially the perky delivery) never fails to crack me up!

  8. Thanks for your terrific post - I didn't know that this film was based on a Dorothy Hughes novel (her novel of 'In a Lonely Place' is terrific, and much different from the film), so I will check it out! I think Maureen O'Hara looks more beautiful in this film than in any other she did (and that's saying something). And Garfield, of course, is always watchable.

  9. GOM, so glad to have you join our FALLEN SPARROW conversation! Thanks for your kind words; it's great to know there are other fans of Dorothy B. Hughes' novels. I'd heard that the film version of IN A LONELY PLACE was very different from the novel. Although I'm a Hughes fan, I actually haven't had a chance to read the novel yet! I got the impression that Hughes' version was more like a mad-killer-on-the-loose story (not that this is necessarily a bad thing :-)). Either way, I look forward to comparing the book and film sometime.

    I quite agree that Maureen O'Hara was especially lovely in TFS, and I felt that she and John Garfield had terrific chemistry together. It's a shame they didn't have more opportunities to team up on film, but I'm sure glad TFS is on DVD now so we can recommend it to others! :-)

  10. Thanks Dorian for the beautiful and very thorough review. I love Maureen O'Hara and I can't believe I never saw this. Probably avoided it due to the strong political drama that I usually skip if it involves a war of any kind. I'll be watching for this on TCM.

  11. Desert Rocks, thanks for your enthusiastic praise! Political dramas tend to leave me cold, but THE FALLEN SPARROW cleverly tucks its political issues into a crackling, suspenseful thriller hearty helpings of romance and glamour. Besides, as a native New Yorker, I'm a sucker for suspense thrillers set in my hometown! :-) TFS does indeed turn up on TCM from time to time, so if you catch it, I think you'll be glad you did! :-)

  12. I have got to stop reading your posts! First THE GAZEBO and now I have to go and order this film from Warners (LOL). Seriously, a terrific review here and as a big John Garfield admirer this is one I have to see. The FRENCH CONNECTION connection with the book cover is kind of spooky. I also find the combination of Garfield and Maureen O'Hara intriguing.


  13. John, I got a kick out of your quips about my Warner Archive movie recommendations wreaking havoc with your wallet! :-) But isn't it great that THE FALLEN SPARROW costs much less money now, thanks to the miracle of Print-on-Demand? I hope you will indeed check out TFS, and that you'll enjoy this great thriller, including the chemistry between the stars, as much as Vinnie and I did! Thanks a million for your positive feedback, as always!

  14. Dorothy B. Hughes was quite a writer. I read her "In a Lonely Place" - and blogged about it a few months ago: - was bowled over by her prose. Did I prefer it to the movie? Maybe...I have "Ride the Pink Horse" on my night stand, soon to be read. Haven't seen or read "The Fallen Sparrow," but thanks to your most thorough post, both film and book are now on my list...

  15. Eve, I'm delighted to discover that you're a fan of Dorothy B. Hughes, too! I don't know who has the rights to her novels now, but I think it's high time to put out sharp new editions of THE FALLEN SPARROW and her other books so a new generation of readers can enjoy them. (The most recent edition I have is from 1984!)

    It's interesting how readers debate whether a film version of a novel is better, or vice versa. I figure each version simply tells the story its own way. (That said, the TFS film is quite faithful to the book.) Was it James M. Cain or Stephen King or yet another renowned writer who replied to a fan that the movie version of his work didn't ruin his book, because it was sitting right there on the shelf? :-) Anyway, Eve, I hope you'll soon get to read and enjoy both THE FALLEN SPARROW and RIDE THE PINK HORSE soon! So glad you joined in the conversation!

  16. Hey, gang, in case anyone reading this hasn't had the pleasure of reading THE LADY EVE'S REEL LIFE blog post from September 26 about both the novel and movie versions of Dorothy B. Hughes' IN A LONELY PLACE, here's the link; read and enjoy!

  17. Yep. That's the way I like 'em, filled with a brooding atmosphere and confusing as all get-out. You sure know your fallen sparrows!

  18. Caftan Woman, I loved your witty comment about THE FALLEN SPARROW and my blog about same -- thanks muchly! On both the page and the movie screen, Dorothy B. Hughes' thrillers have the ABCs of great suspense storytelling:


    All in a good, entertaining way, of course! :-) Thanks for dropping by, CW; come around any time!

  19. John Garfield, Walter Slezak, and the Beaver's Dad (Hugh Beaumont)...what's not to like? I think Garfield was at his most effective in roles like this. (Have you seen FORCE OF EVIL?) As always, a smart, well-written review...I expect no less from TotED.

  20. Rick, your comment "As always, a smart, well-written review...I expect no less from TotED" put a big smile on my face. Thanks a million for your praise, my friend! I agree with you that roles like John Garfield was at his best in films like TFS. (Vinnie and I liked Garfield in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE as well.) FORCE OF EVIL is one that I've been meaning to catch up with. No doubt it'll turn up again sometime on TCM, so I'll keep an eye out for it!