Novelist Dorothy B. Hughes built a good head of paranoia and suspense in her 1942 thriller THE FALLEN SPARROW (TFS), and RKO masterfully and faithfully adapted the 1943 movie version. Director Richard Wallace, screenwriter Warren Duff, and editor Robert Wise condense the novel's events and complex relationships without watering it down.
Starting with the quote "...in a world at war many sparrows must fall...", the film brings us into the mindset of troubled yet determined hero John "Kit" McKittrick (John Garfield). Kit's boyhood friend Lt. Louie Lepetino had helped him escape the Spanish prison where he'd been tortured for two agonizing years after the Spanish Civil War. Returning to New York City from a ranch rest cure, Kit's stunned to discover that Louie's been killed in a 12-story fall from a window at a swanky party for wartime refugees Dr. Skaas (Walter Slezak) and his nephew Otto (Hugh Beaumont, pre-LEAVE IT TO BEAVER). Hell-bent on proving Louie's death was neither accidental nor a suicide, Kit starts sleuthing, with help from pal Ab Parker (Bruce Edwards). Kit's grim goal: killing Louie's killer.
Kit's suspects include just about everyone in his upscale circle of friends, especially the women, since he's sure only a dame could've gotten close enough to Louie to shove him out a window. Was it Kit's alluring old flame Barby Taviton (brunette Patricia Morison may not look like the blonde Barby described in Hughes's book, but she's got the sophistication and entitled attitude)? Lovely, sad-eyed refugee Toni Donne (Maureen O'Hara in a change-of-pace role; more on that shortly)? Ab's young songbird cousin Whitney Parker, affectionately known as "Imp" (appealing Martha O'Driscoll. By the way, this character's name was "Content Hamilton" in the novel, but I like her new name better)? Kit's biggest obstacle: he has what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He's still haunted by the memory of the mysterious man from Franco's elite Nazi squad, a limping man who tortured Kit in his dark cell, trying to make him reveal where he'd hidden his regiment's battle standard. (In the novel, the McGuffin was a set of fabulous Babylon goblets the defiant Kit took from the enemy. The goblets are in the film, but the script emphasizes that battle flag and the symbolism behind it.) Even now, Kit struggles against fear as he imagines hearing the drag and thump that signaled his sadistic tormentor's arrival -- or IS he imagining it? Terror mounts as Kit realizes his enemies may have followed him home, maybe even planting their spies into every aspect of Kit's life, placing not only himself in danger, but also his friends and loved ones...
The role of Kit, a working-class, self-described "mug" in gent's clothing (his ex-cop dad struck it rich) with a heart full of all-but-shattered ideals, fits John Garfield like a glove. Garfield's toughness, tenderness, and humor have us rooting for Kit. As in the book, Kit spends lots of time and energy trying to convince himself he's not afraid, only to be proved wrong, to his frustration. Hughes's haunting descriptions of Kit's memories of his horrific Spain ordeal are conveyed well in Garfield's powerful monologue, enhanced by the camera's slow close-up on his expressive face. The sweat on Garfield's brow and the twitch in his cheek as he finally faces his enemy during the climax speak volumes.
As Toni Donne, the guarded beauty with a terrible hold over her, lovely Maureen O'Hara (did they darken her red hair, or is it just Nicholas Musuraca's gorgeous black-and-white photography?) tries to downplay her Irish accent, but it still lurks in certain words. While our household loves O'Hara, she wouldn't have been our first choice as a femme fatale, but Toni's inner fear and regret come through in O'Hara's poignant, soulful portrayal, winning my sympathy. O'Hara has great fire-and-ice chemistry with the intense Garfield. In the book, Kit kissed Toni, but with her cautious reserve, she never kissed back with any kind of enthusiasm. In this film version, Kit and Toni finally share longing kisses and tender embraces -- much more fun to watch! :-) Walter Slezak's performance as Dr. Skaas is silkily sinister, though his true evil nature is telegraphed earlier than in the book, with his interest in "the cruelties of men towards other men" and "comparing modern scientific torture with the methods of the ancients" (who apparently didn't mess with victims' heads enough for Skaas). An avuncular hybrid of Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Clifton Webb, Slezak is one of 1940s cinema's most memorable villains.
TFS keeps the paranoia percolating and the suspense simmering, even keeping much of the novel's best dialogue, with only minor tweaks. The filmmakers truly evoke the feeling and atmosphere of wintertime World War 2 Manhattan, especially with their use of shadows, light and sound as well as Roy Webb and Constantine Bakaleinikoff's Oscar-nominated score. Today's audiences might not understand Kit's obsession with the battle flag, even with the explanatory scene at Toni's home -- but then again, I bet the men and women fighting overseas will get the significance of a battle standard and what it symbolizes.
Although Dorothy B. Hughes's mysteries were best-sellers in her heyday, they seemed to be all but forgotten after she retired to focus on her family. Luckily, the film version of TFS captures her tale of terror beautifully. If you want to read the book, Amazon.com has both new and used paperback editions available so you can rediscover her. Interestingly, the 1988 paperback edition I read had cover art with an uncanny resemblance to, of all things, the movie poster for THE FRENCH CONNECTION!