' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Nobody Lives Forever (1946)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Nobody Lives Forever (1946)

I mean, it's all right there in the title, isn’t it? Jean Negulesco's film “Nobody Lives Forever” was based on a book by W.R. Burnett, who also wrote the screenplay, titled "I Wasn't Born Yesterday." But the idiom I Wasn't Born Yesterday implies something entirely different from Nobody Lives Forever. I Wasn't Born Yesterday implies that you have sniffed out an attempt to pull the wool over your eyes whereas Nobody Lives Forever implies that as we all eventually meet our maker we have to recognize and embrace the opportunity to live 'til we die. And although Nick Blake (John Garfield) clearly conveys the fact he wasn't born yesterday, this film is all about his acting on the idea that nobody lives forever.

In fact, it’s a film where everybody, in one way or another, has come to learn that hard truth. Noir so often pivots on fate turning its grisly screws, characters placed in the universe’s vicious vice, but everyone here is self-aware. We enter the story after fate has already caught up with them, after the universe has already placed them in its vice and leveled threats. “You’re 34,” another character tells Nick, “and from there it’s downhill.” This was disturbing partially because I’m 36 and already two years past the cutoff, but also because, you know, I’m a Nick. It’s like the movie was momentarily talking to me. I had to pause the DVR and weep.

Not that Movie Nick needs any reminding. Being in WWII will probably teach a dude that nobody lives forever. That’s where Nick was, WWII, and as the film opens he has just returned home to New York City. First order of business, track down his gal, Toni (Faye Emerson), to whom he entrusted his dough before leaving. A problem instantly emerges – she used that dough to open a nightclub, the club foundered and well-to-do Chet King (Robert Shayne) bought it up. Now Chet and Nick’s gal are an item. A little revenge seems in order, but Nick keeps his mind on his money. He asks Chet for his money back, Chet obliges, and Nick and his right-hand man flee NYC for the west coast. It’s almost as if Nick has gone against noir grain and resisted the femme fatale. Ah, but fear not, she’ll re-appear, as she must.

The mythos states that The West is place of new beginnings, but here it’s an outpost of last chances – dreamers replaced by desperate schemers, “tramps” as one of the tramps puts it. One of these tramps is Doc Ganson, played by George Coulouris. His face almost becomes the film’s foremost symbol – a face that is eternally panicked, sweaty, beady eyes that dart every which way, as if he’s already got one leg in the wolf trap and he is going crazy trying to decide whether or not to gnaw off his own leg to escape. It might just come to that.

It’s his ruse that sets the remainder of the film in motion. A widowed dame, Gladys (Geraldine Fitzgerald), is flush with cash. If one of the tramps can wine and dine her, maybe they can make that cash theirs. Doc, though, knows he doesn’t have the pizazz to pull this off and enlists the aid of Pop Gruber (Walter Brennan), an aging man con man likely on his last con. He and Nick go back a ways. So when Nick arrives, he pitches the con and Nick accepts.

Well, you know the ropes, don’t you? ‘Course, you do. Nick’ll fall for the dame – and that’s the sorta language employed, “You’re not fallin’ for that dame, are ya?” – and have to decide whether to take her dough or follow through on his newfound love. But again, the film, slyly, makes it less Nick coming to terms with his Feelings, shall we say, than with the knowledge that Nobody Lives Forever. Maybe this con is his last chance to score big, but maybe this is his last chance to find love and make a life that does not depend upon swindling. And it’s the latter fact that Fitzgerald plays straight to – ably cutting right through the fact she has been manipulated to convey that she can tell he was being genuine.

The film’s sore spot, however, is resorting to a third-act crux that seems torn from the worn pages of the playbook of so many shabby thrillers. It involves guns and a hostage and a fog-shroud shack. On the other hand, the saving grace of the third-act crux is how the narrative subtly becomes Pop’s as much as Nick’s. Walter Brennan was a hard-working character actor, forever in support, best illustrated by having won three Best Supporting Actor Oscars, though in my heart he will always be Eddie, Bogart’s faux-consigliere in “To Have and Have Not.” Here, holding a crummy little version of court in his bar, where he claims two beers is his limit a night even though he always appears to drink more than two beers, he props himself up as defeated mentor of Nick.

He knows nobody lives forever and, in fact, he may well know his own end is night. Thus, his driving goal is not necessarily to make it through, but to get Nick set to live until forever is up.

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