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The Fallen Sparrow
Warner Archive Collection

The Fallen Sparrow
Warner Archive Collection
1943 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 94 min. / Street Date May 5, 2009 / available through the Warner Archive Collection / 15.95 (currently)
Starring John Garfield, Maureen O'Hara, Walter Slezak, Patricia Morison, Martha O'Driscoll, Bruce Edwards, John Banner, John Miljan, Hugh Beaumont.
Nicholas Musuraca
Film Editor Robert Wise
Original Music Roy Webb
Written by Warren Duff from a book by Dorothy B. Hughes
Produced by Robert Fellows
Directed by Richard Wallace

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Low key espionage stories in the Graham Greene vein found a new popularity during WW2, with Greene's This Gun for Hire a particularly successful example. But translating the complicated politics of wartime alliances into movie terms could backfire. While one studio was creating pro- Soviet propaganda (Warners' Mission to Moscow), another played safe with the contentious issue of the Spanish Civil War by never mentioning the buzzwords Fascist or Communist (Paramount's For Whom the Bell Tolls).

At some point in the seesawing political tides, being anti-Fascist wasn't enough: one's acceptability depended on when one had taken up one's anti-Fascist stance, especially as concerned the Spanish Civil War. 1938's Blockade was an ineffective attempt by Hollywood leftists to promote support for the Spanish Republic, while 1945's Confidential Agent concentrates on Graham Greene-style intrigues, turning the Republic into a romantic lost cause. In the middle of the war (1943) RKO produced and released The Fallen Sparrow, borrowing John Garfield from Warners. As in a classic noir, Garfield's character surfaces in New York City to avenge the murder of a friend, only to find that Nazi agents have followed him back from Spain.

Kit McKittrick (John Garfield) is an ex- volunteer from the Spanish Civil War who was held prisoner after the defeat by German and Italian Fascists. After recuperating from a nervous breakdown in Arizona, Kit learns that the friend who helped him escape has died in an "accidental" fall from a skyscraper during a New York society party. Already connected with a ritzy crowd, Kit shows up to find the responsible party. His pal Ab Parker (Bruce Edwards) is a businessman with confidential Washington contacts. Society doll Barby Taviton (Patricia Morrison) and high-class singer Whitney "The Imp" Parker (Martha O'Driscoll) get Kit's attention because he believes that his friend was too careful to be cornered by a man. Kit's suspicion soon zeroes in on the dark, secretive Toni Donne (Maureen O'Hara), who works in a millinery shop. Compounding Kit's insecurity are Witney's accompanist Anton (a young John Banner, impossibly slim) and a strange pair of "Norwegians", Dr. Christian Skaas and his grim son Otto (Walter Slezak & Hugh Beaumont). The doctor likes to talk about torture, a subject that gives Kit the shakes; only by force of will is our hero keeping his mental balance. It seems that enemy agents killed Kit's pal, but their primary target is Kit himself.

The Fallen Sparrow is a political intrigue thriller that's light on the thrills and heavy on good acting from John Garfield, a natural who seems to inhabit his characters rather than perform them. Bouncing from cocktail parties to night clubs to hotel rooms, we're introduced to a cast of suspects faster than we can digest them or tell them apart; within a few minutes the dialogue all seems to be about people who aren't present, and whose names we've neglected to link up with faces. When characters aren't introduced with specific actions or motifs, it's easy to lose one's bearings. Unfortunately, we drift into The Fallen Sparrow's long second act prepared to do little more than wait for the plot to find its direction. Is the slimy Dr. Skaas an obvious villain or just a red herring? The society dolls keep talking romance -- is it a smokescreen for femme fatale scheming? The soulful, frightened Toni Donne attracts Kit, but he's also highly suspicious of her evasions. Is she a victim of the conspiracy or its main agent?

We spend much of The Fallen Sparrow fumbling about for answers, like a person in the dark looking for a light switch. Every scene seems to be an ambivalent verbal confrontation that does little to clear up the murk. Kit has recurring episodes of psychic strain, but we don't feel that he's going to break down before solving the mystery. Apparently Adolf Hitler himself has ordered a complicated spy mission to recover a special item from Kit, that he wouldn't give up, even after torture. His outfit in the Spanish Civil War killed a high-ranking Nazi general that was a favorite of Der Führer. As if that's not enough, some ancient Borgia wine goblets get involved too; they appear to be embossed with a highly relevant emblem.

In Dorothy Hughes' original novel the goblets were the McGuffin but the film chooses another important item on which to concentrate. It's all so murky that we wonder if The Maltese Falcon is going to make a surprise appearance. The story has a habit of pausing for a character to deliver a patriotic mini-essay on the necessity of stopping those Nazi bastards cold. The audience is reminded that the good old U. S of A. is so far getting its pants kicked in both theaters of war. It's time to get tough, and that means cleaning out these rotten Axis spies.

Everything in The Fallen Sparrow is subdued. Walter Slezak is a less-imposing Sydney Greenstreet. RKO cost cutting produces some odd casting, as with Hugh Beaumont's completely ineffectual sinister European. Beaver Cleaver's dad just hasn't got an evil streak -- his discontented expression looks more like indigestion. Maureen O-Hara is beautiful but rather inert as a Continental mystery woman. She always looks as if someone took away her favorite puppy. With his authoritative and brash manner, John Garfield singlehandedly pulls this one to the finish line, but it's a real haul.

Val Lewton fans take note -- Savant strongly suspects that the superb horror thriller The Seventh Victim moved into The Fallen Sparrow's sound stages and re-used some of the same sets. A hotel room with a big skylight becomes the room of poet Jason Hoag, the millinery shop may be part of the La Sagesse beauty factory showroom and a hotel corridor is definitely re-used for The Seventh Victim's eerie climax in Mimi's hallway. Not only that, but John Garfield's quietly anguished recounting of torture in Spain is filmed similarly to Jacqueline Gibson's haunted murder confession in The Seventh Victim, with a slow truck-in from a wide shot that lasts at least a minute.

The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Fallen Sparrow looks quite good and appears to be a fairly recent transfer. Nicholas Musuraca's moody noir lighting drenches almost every scene in deep shadows; this is one of those New York films that seem to take place in eternal night. C. Bakaleinikoff and Roy Webb's music score was nominated for an Academy Award.

One last note about an obscure actor whose movie career lasted only a few months: thin, balding Erford Gage plays a butler in this picture. Gage's only real role of note is as the failed poet Jason Hoag in The Seventh Victim, where, unfortunately, he doesn't make a very good impression. A book on Val Lewton tells us that Gage enlisted in the Army soon thereafter. He died fighting in the Philippines two years later, at age 32. Not to make a big point out of this, but many Hollywood acting hopefuls served in the ranks, and not just the celebrity enlistees.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Fallen Sparrow rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 13, 2010

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

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