Given how fond we are of our anti-heroes, it’s a wonder that John Garfield doesn’t loom larger in our moviegoing memory.
We love our Sean Penns and Ryan Goslings, our Al Pacinos and Robert De Niros, our James Deans and Marlon Brandos and Montgomery Clifts. But Garfield (who was born 100 years ago this week, on March 4, 1913) was there before all of them. The star of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Body and Soul” was Hollywood’s first Method actor — and its first rebel.
He wasn’t Hollywood’s first gangster — fellow Warner Bros. stars Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart beat him to the punch — but he may have been the most authentic, and the one with the most sexual edge. Garfield’s filmography has a life-imitates-art-imitates-life quality to it. Many of his roles seemed to echo the juvenile-delinquent New York street kid and ex-boxer that he was before the acting bug bit him. His characters were often scrappy outsiders, streetwise and pugnacious, pitted against overwhelming social and political forces that would prove his undoing.
Indeed, that’s what happened in his real life.
The kid who grew up on the streets of the Bronx as Julius Garfinkle (even after he acquired his Gentile-sounding stage name, friends and family still called him Julie) found his niche in the Group Theatre of the 1930s, starring in social-message plays written by his old Bronx pal Clifford Odets and training in the Stanislavskian techniques of emotional naturalism that would come to be known as the Method. He brought to Hollywood his street-tough attitude, his social consciousness, and his emotional directness. These qualities made him a star overnight, but they also got him typecast as gangsters and thugs.
Eventually, he was able to branch out; as one of Hollywood’s first actors-turned-independent producers, he developed the projects that became his two finest movies, “Body and Soul” and “Force of Evil.” As a tough-but-vulnerable romantic, he had tremendous appeal to both men and women.
Garfield seemed to be on top of the world until he was targeted by the Hollywood blacklist in 1951. Though he had never been a communist, he’d associated with plenty of them (especially in his Group Theatre days) and had even married one, but he still adhered to his street code and refused to name names when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. That killed his movie career, making him the biggest star to fall prey to the blacklist. Stress from being unemployable exacerbated the heart condition that had kept him from fighting in World War II, and he died of a heart attack in 1952, when he was just 39.
Still, 60 or 70 years later, Garfield’s performances burn a hole in the screen, in a way that seemed radical then but is familiar to us now, thanks to the actors for whom he opened doors, from smoldering Method brooders like Brando (who landed his historic role in “A Streetcar Named Desire” because Garfield was unavailable) to the streetwise ethnic stars of our own time, like Pacino, De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Dustin Hoffman. Directors from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino have paid him homage in their films.
It’s worth going back, then, to watch Garfield’s work, to see where the archetypes we admire so much today got their start. Even now, Garfield’s then-novel approach, in the context of the formulaic melodramas he was often cast in, feels like a liberating blast of fresh air. Here are ten of his must-see performances:
‘Four Daughters’ (1938)
Garfield made his debut as Mickey Borden, a musician from the wrong side of the tracks who is taken in by a genteel family. The contrast between his style and that of everyone else in the picture is evident and exciting, and it earned him his first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor.
‘The Sea Wolf’ (1941)
In this adaptation of Jack London’s maritime tale, Garfield clashes with Edward G. Robinson (one of his precursors as a Jewish-actor-turned-Warners-gangster), who plays an increasingly erratic ship captain. A great actors’ showdown.
‘Destination Tokyo’ (1943)
Unable to fight in the war himself because of a heart defect, this was one of several propaganda pictures Garfield made to further the war effort. It’s also another exercise in clashing acting styles, Cary Grant plays a suave submarine captain, while Garfield is a vulgar underling named Wolf who boasts of his womanizing. But during a dangerous World War II mission, both men prove their heroism.
‘Pride of the Marines’ (1945)
In one of his most Method-y performances, Garfield plays real-life war hero Al Schmid, who was blinded in combat, as he struggles to readjust to civilian life. To prepare for the role, Garfield spent several weeks living with the real Schmid and spent hours each day blindfolded.
‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (1946)
Perhaps Garfield’s most famous movie, this classic film noir teams him with Lana Turner as a drifter and a waitress, respectively, who scheme to kill her husband. The 1981 Jack Nicholson-Jessica Lange remake may have been more explicit, but it doesn’t match the raw sexual heat generated by Garfield and Turner, both at their steamiest and most volatile.
Like Garfield himself, his character is a performer (in this case, a classical violinist) who rises to fame from a Lower East Side tenement. Instrumental in his success is wealthy patron Joan Crawford, with whom he embarks on a doomed romance. As on the screen, his romantic attachments would always take a back seat to his art.
‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ (1947)
This exposé of anti-Semitism won Best Picture in 1947, but what seemed daring then (writer Gregory Peck goes undercover as a Jew and is shunned and excluded) seems less so today (the movie’s message seems to be: You should be nice to Jews because they could turn out to be nice Gentiles like Gregory Peck in disguise). Still, Garfield, who plays Peck’s Jewish pal, is the liveliest thing in the movie. In one of the few explicitly Jewish roles that the Jewish actor got to play on screen, Garfield brings his own experience to bear on the character of a man who knows all too well how it feels to be slighted because of prejudice.
‘Body and Soul’ (1947)
In his first self-produced movie, former boxer Garfield plays a Jewish prizefighter who rises from the streets to the championship, only to be told by the Mob to take a dive. The character is, in many ways, the most autobiographical of Garfield’s career, and the result was not only a second Oscar nomination (for Best Actor) but also one of the best movies ever made about boxing.
‘Force of Evil’ (1948)
Garfield’s other great self-produced flick was this allegory by “Body and Soul” screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, who also directed this time. Garfield plays a crooked lawyer who helps the Mob consolidate New York’s numbers rackets until his own brother becomes a casualty. Making explicit the comparison between capitalism and organized crime a quarter-century before “The Godfather,” Polonsky’s bleak film noir takes Garfield’s usual David-and-Goliath story and places it in a moral universe where no one’s motives are pure and where justice seems beside the point. Cut from the film were scenes of Garfield turning state’s evidence and testifying before a legislative anti-racketeering committee, scenes eerily prescient of the actor’s testimony three years later before HUAC.
‘He Ran All the Way’ (1951)
Garfield comes full circle in his final film, playing a crook who hides out in the apartment of a family whose members he holds hostage, even as he develops a wistful longing for a normal family life of his own. As usual, Garfield is compelling as a man who earns sympathy, despite doing the wrong thing, because of the vast and impersonal forces arrayed against him.