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The Fallen Sparrow

Posted by martinteller on November 4, 2012

“Why do you want to carry a gun?”
“To shoot people with, sweetheart.”

John McKittrick (John Garfield) is in New York, trying to figure out what really happened to his buddy Louie.  The cops say he fell or jumped out of a window during a fancy party, but McKittrick isn’t buying it.  Louie was a special friend to him… he helped John escape a prison camp in the Spanish Civil War, where he suffered at the hands of Nazis, including a limping man he never saw, but the distinctive sound of his foot dragging down the hall still haunts him.  In McKittrick’s quest for the truth, he’ll recruit his old friends, the big shot Ab Parker (Bruce Edwards) and the high society lounge singer Whitney “The Imp” (Martha O’Driscoll).  And he’ll encounter an array of suspicious characters: the wheelchair-bound, torture-obsessed Dr. Skaas (Walter Slezak), his nephew Otto (Hugh Beaumont), Whitney’s shady pianist Anton (John Banner)… and the beautiful, mysterious Toni Donne (Maureen O’Hara).  McKittrick is involved deeper than he knows, and still he’s haunted by sound of that dragging foot.

There are those who say plot is unimportant in noir.  I agree, but only to a certain extent.  A convoluted, confusing story can be forgiven if the movie isn’t always trying to explain the story, and/or if it has enough else going for it.  Fallen Sparrow falls short on both accounts.  I would have liked to ignore the twisted, confounding narrative, a web of characters and Nazi spy rings and old grudges and a lame MacGuffin.  But everyone kept wanting to talk about it.  And there isn’t quite enough noir stylization to overcome it.

But there are some definite assets.  Nicholas Musuraca is one of the great cinematographers of the era and he does fine work here… although I wouldn’t count it among his best.  Likewise, Garfield isn’t at his most compelling, but he pulls off a couple of lengthy and difficult monologues very well, and he sells the psychological torment of the character (it’s too bad more wasn’t done with that).  I liked O’Driscoll a lot, and Slezak is a great villain, especially when he rhapsodizes about the genius of Chinese water torture.  O’Hara, however, continues her streak of failing to raise my pulse in any way, whether it’s in great films like Hunchback of Notre Dame or in some John Ford dreck.  She just doesn’t register with me at all.

Made just after the US entered the war, there’s a patriotic, propagandistic bent to it, but it’s handled well enough not to come off like flag-waving (even though the entire plot is, literally, about a flag).  McKittrick’s inner turmoil is really interesting stuff, and should have had a larger part to play.  The climax is terrific and the ending is very noir.  I just wish the narrative had been easier to follow, or else cared less about trying to make me follow it.  Rating: Good (75)


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