Richard Wallace directs The Fallen Sparrow, a convoluted 1943 film noir based on the novel of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes. The screenplay is by Warren Duff and the cinematography is by Nicholas Musuraca. The look of Wallace’s picture reveals an impressive espionage core, even if the film can’t live up to the implied tension.
The Hughes novel is a pulp piece and a far cry from Ride the Pink Horse and In a Lonely Place, both of which were also made into films. The Fallen Sparrow is more invested in opportune espionage tropes, with a baffling knot of plots leading down some byzantine roads.
The film opens as John McKittrick (John Garfield) returns home after two years of torture in Spain during that country’s civil war. The Nationalist side received a great deal of assistance from Nazi Germany and McKittrick endured punishment from an unseen Nazi captor with a limp before a friend arranged his escape.
McKittrick learns of the death of said friend, a New York cop, and is told that it was an accident. He doesn’t believe it and heads to the city to investigate. This leads to a complex cast of possible suspects, including the beautiful Toni Donne (Maureen O’Hara) and an assortment of refugees from Europe.
The Fallen Sparrow starts off on a glorious note with McKittrick returning home via train. Musuraca’s lensing focuses on the protagonist’s reflection in the window as the train enters a tunnel and an internal monologue starts to question the fabric of things, with a pretty two-shot detailing the conflict. Later, another two-shot frames a critical conversation between Donne and McKittrick.
This illustrates the progression for the hero, as he moves out of the agony of his own mind and into the possibility of being with O’Hara’s character. Whether this fringe of hope is genuine is beside the point, as the notion of having the ear of the most gorgeous woman he’s ever seen weathers him for a time.
Of course, there’s little to trust in The Fallen Sparrow and Wallace does well to provoke a firm atmosphere of unrest. And the theme of torment, alive particularly through the spine-chilling interest of Dr. Christian Skaas (Walter Slezak), carries through in a wash of water torture and the incessant dragging of feet.
Garfield is a pleasure, as much as that can be said about a man so worn down by the bulk of the world. His mind is a kaleidoscope of hellacious recollections, where he continuously hears the arrival of the torturer and at one point plays the piano to drown it out.
It’s too bad the actor doesn’t have more to work with, however, as even O’Hara manages to put in a wooden performance. She personifies McKittrick’s ideal, a beautiful woman who radiates through a room, but she seems bored. Patricia Morison fares better as an old-ish flame, but her delights are mostly aesthetic.
The Fallen Sparrow is weighed down by its intricate nature and never fully pulls out of the blocks. It’s at its best when Garfield plumbs the depths of a tortuous past, but the plot doesn’t carry much weight and too much stress is placed on what is essentially a MacGuffin. It’s worth seeing for the ferocity of the lead, but the sustainability of this outing is suspect.