16 June 2002 | bmacv
Thick, overheated "anti-Fascist" noir leaves scorched aftertaste
Hollywood fought World War II on many fronts: most obviously, in its documentaries and war dramas; in genre series coopted for the war effort (such as Sherlock Holmes programmers); and in thrillers dedicated to smoking out the Fifth Column at home (The House on Ninety-Second Street). There was also a more complicated, ideologically tinged kind of movie, not simply anti-Nazi but more broadly `anti-Fascist' (and defiantly leftist). Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine was one; The Fallen Sparrow was another.
John Garfield (who else?) survived torture while fighting for the anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War, but it took its toll; he recuperated in a sanitarium in the Southwest. Upon returning to New York where a war buddy has met death by defenestration from a penthouse party he finds some of his friends traveling in the same circles as vaguely sinister Europeans and fly-specked aristocrats Germans, Italians, Spaniards who take a perverse interest in him. Among them is Maureen O'Hara (in a dark, forties updo), who runs hot and cold when it comes to his advances.
The dense plot of The Fallen Sparrow collapses into a noirish muddle. Multiple heavies purr in a babel of as many stage accents (Hugh Beaumont's Prussian the most amusing of them). Walter Slezak plays a mittel-European professor whose passion seems to be the aesthetics of torture, and whose limp summons up nightmares for Garfield. There are also family crests dating from at least the Borgias (whose speciality was goblets of poisoned wine), a senile old curmudgeon who believes he'll be restored to the throne of France, and a tattered standard Garfield has rescued from Spain, which becomes this film's black bird....
Following all these threads require rapt attention, but who would be willing to devote anything less to the fight against Fascism? The film borrows from such immediate predecessors in the nascent noir cycle as The Maltese Falcon (especially the ending) and The Glass Key. It cooks up plenty of atmosphere but lacks vital clarity. It's not without interest the attention to the psychological aftermath of torture is a bold and courageous stroke but with its political passions looking quaint, if not naive, this overheated melodrama leaves a scorched aftertaste.