Even my classic-movie-hating sister, who is seldom willing to admit ANYTHING positive about my beloved black and whites, had to admit, there’s just something about John Garfield. Some sensuality, magnetism that escalates him far beyond his seemingly average looks. I mean, if the guy were standing still, I’d maybe compare him to Matt Damon: ordinary enough to slip from notice (as a man playing a superspy should be). But Garfield rarely stays still. And once he moves, his look intensifies, his fluid athleticism kicks into gear, and all that ordinariness is gone: this guy is crazy hot.
I realize his looks are far from the best thing about Garfield. This superb actor is among my favorites, can make me root even for the often disreputable characters he so thoroughly inhabits and humanizes. But it’s undeniable that if a guy plays a con man who can get any woman, he needs to either have Cary Grant’s looks, or be a guy like John Garfield, whose intensity and confidence make you ignore every other man, woman, dog, cat, and chair in the room.
Take Nobody Lives Forever (1946). When Nick approaches his mark, Gladys (Geraldine Fitzgerald), you feel a kind of pity, even though Nick is the hero: she doesn’t stand a chance. We know from the script she’s a lonely and bored widow. Her financial manager is giving her an unutterably boring description of his golf game. Here’s her expression before Nick arrives:
Nick approaches, and the effort not to swoon–how does she manage it? Notice the intensity of this expression:
And here’s how she looks after five minutes with him:
He walks away, and the formerly abstaining Gladys orders a brandy.
**some spoilers–but not how it all ends**
In most films, it’s hard not to despise the mark. Even if he/she is sweet, the level of stupidity is so pronounced you root for the con artist, as the screenwriter wants you to do. The fact that you’d never feel that way in real life is irrelevant: for the space of an hour or two, you’re all for cleverness over heart. Nobody Lives Forever is that rare film that makes you respect both con artist and mark because there’s a kind of maturity and world-weariness to Gladys, despite her blindness to Nick’s motives; clearly, her former husband’s long illness has taken away some of her illusions.
Nick’s recent war experience makes his change of heart believable, and her desire for him, even when she discovers his true character, seems not the reaction of a sap but of a woman who has had enough experience not to expect perfection in her man. Part of that is the role; part of that is Fitzgerald’s convincing performance. But most of it is Garfield. I mean, how the hell do you say goodbye to that man? Clearly, Gladys is not ready to; just check out that grip:
Since this is noir, of course, we don’t know how it’s all going to end. Nick has two frightening foes in his ex and a shaky co-conspirator. The ending is suspenseful, and involves large doses of Nick’s friend, Pop (the wonderful Walter Brennan), so I obviously won’t spoil it for you.
I will say as a huge fan of con artist movies that any cleverness is utterly absent. Nick makes up a career that would be so easy to disprove, with little effort to give it substance. There’s no satisfaction for my Ocean 11’s-, The Sting-loving gene, no big reveal or sleight of hand. But there is some of that sweetness I’ve come to love in Leverage, and like that highly satisfying TV show, the film gives us the toll such a life takes on its players (especially since these grifters aren’t the do-gooders of that small-screen team). Overall, I had a mixed reaction to the film as a story. But as a vehicle for Garfield, it’s wonderful. He’s so believable in the role, so intense and mesmerizing. And as always, so sexy.