“In a world at war, many sparrows must fall….”
It’s 1940 as Sparrow opens and we’ll find John Garfield on a train that is set to arrive in New York. For a quick hint of what may lie in his future he’ll stumble into Maureen O’Hara as the train rocks and sways. Just a brief taste of what is yet to come for our Noir icon. John’s coming home to New York after being overseas and fighting in the Spanish Civil War where he was captured and the victim of repeated tortures at the hand of his Nazi captors.
He’s returning after an extended stay in what was surely a home for the mentally ill though that term is never used yet clearly all those he’ll come into contact with for the balance of the film will be questioning his sanity. John’s back in the Big Apple after discovering a close friend on the police force and the man who rescued him is said to have committed suicide. No way is John going to believe it and he’s come to find out if his freedom is the reason.
In little time at all John finds his former associates and mingles in high society. This includes ex-lover Patricia Morrison, old pal Bruce Edwards and young Martha O’Driscoll who plays like she’s John’s kid sister all grown up and singing in the nightclubs. The problem is there seems to be a foreign element now residing in his inner circle. A wheel chaired Walter Slezak and his nephew, Hugh Beaumont, are recent arrivals from Norway and a very German John Banner serving as O’Driscoll’s pianist. Yes I think it’s very easy to assume that John has nestled into a gang of Nazi spies and the verbal sparring will commence with Slezak on the ever changing styles of torture and their benefits.
After a trio of chance meetings with O’Hara, John wants to know about the feisty lady who at first snubs him. A bit of aggression on his part and a box of flowers melts her heart and he’s soon falling for the Irish lass. But is she “on the level.” While John will continue to doubt his own sanity thanks to his torturous sweat inducing flashbacks, is O’Hara part of this elaborate scheme to finally pry information from John that his captors never did? Perhaps another femme fatale of Noir?
The tempo will rise when one of John’s inner circle of friends turns up dead from another apparent suicide but he’s having none of it. Time for John to go on the offence and kill the one man he never did see during his capture but could only hear behind prison doors. A man with a pronounced limp who dragged his foot across the floor. It’s the sound of this limp scraping across floor boards that haunts Garfield in his dreams. What do the Nazi’s want from him. I’m not saying but according to John it’s “the symbol of three thousand men who died around me.”
A few more twists and a few more turns before the ending which comes at a tidy 93 minutes under Richard Wallace’s direction for RKO productions.
There’s little doubt looking back that John Garfield excelled in these Noir features portraying men who are emotionally scarred and attempting to face both their inner demons, real or imagined. And when the film calls for it as it does here to face the men responsible and deliver his own brand of justice. Or at least the justice that was called for and allowed under the “code” of the era. Not what I’d call an outright propaganda film there’s little doubt that the film serves as another attempt during the war years to cast Hitler as the bad guy. What’s interesting here is his name is never once uttered yet on more than one occasion John references “the little guy in Berlin” in unfriendly tones.
In keeping with the Garfield image the film hints that before going off to war John had underworld connections while his late pal joined the police force. John’s in tight with a nightclub owner and a cabbie who he’ll call on when the going gets rough. He’ll also be kept under a watchful eye by the detective who investigated the case of his late friend played by John Miljan and the two will verbally spar on several occasions as John continues to bend the law moving forward.
In essence another tailor made role for the John Garfield image and the man delivers.
On Miss O’Hara’s account I found her role to be window dressing that could have had any number of leading ladies cast. But if star power was what the producers were looking for above the marquee then they got it. I much preferred her role in another 1943 film aimed at the war effort, This Land Is Mine. While I was hoping she may have given us some details on Sparrow in her autobiography, all she really mentions is that John was a “sweetheart.”
For the trivia hounds, there are two actors here that would go on to find fame on the small screen. Hugh Beaumont was of course Ward Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver and an almost unrecognizable John Banner would achieve some popularity with audiences years later as the tubby, befuddled Sgt. Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes who would always proclaimed “I see nothing.”
Looking for a copy of The Fallen Sparrow? Keep your eyes on the TCM guide or order a copy from The Warner Archive Collection.