What We Carry With Us


John Garfield was a method actor before method acting was cool in Hollywood, and like James Cagney he was often pigeonholed as a tough guy and rogueish anti-hero, only in Garfield’s case his persona had more of a jailbird or prisoner-of-war slant. The 1943 film, The Fallen Sparrow neatly falls into that trope with a heavy dash of PTSD and a lot of baggage.

It opens in November of 1940. John McKittrick (John Garfield) is on his way back from a vacation in Arizona to see Inspector Tobin (John Miljan) in New York because a friend of his, NYPD Lieutenant Louis Lepetino, fell from a top-floor apartment window. The police have ruled it to be either an accident or deliberate but John, or “Kitt”, as his friends call him, doesn’t buy it, and he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery.


Kitt’s vacation was about recovery, as he’s not only a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, but as a Republican soldier he was taken prisoner by the Nationalists and frequently tortured and starved by their Nazi collaborators because he held something of great value to them. Louis helped free Kitt, who came back to New York a changed man, hardened and broken at the same time. He can talk a little bit about his experiences and mostly function on a normal level, but he still breaks out in a cold sweat when he hears certain noises and has to remind himself that he’s no longer a prisoner.

There might be a mystery to solve, but first Kitt has to see his friends, all of whom have been waiting on pins and needles for him to come back from Arizona. Kitt is rather cool towards his old girlfriend, Barby (Patricia Morison), which disappoints her, but he squires her around dutifully, at least for a while. She goes on vacation, fortunately, and Kitt doesn’t really miss her since he’s focused on taking care of business.


The kid sister-figure in his circle, Whitney (Martha O’Driscoll), nicknamed “Imp,” is a fount of information because her accompanist gets around and knows in detail who’s been hanging out with who. There’s also the creepy wheelchair-bound Doctor Christian Skaas (Walter Slezak), who not only loves fantasizing about different methods of torture in mixed company, but prefers all the doors closed when he does it. Yeah, that’s completely normal.

Fallen Sparrow wouldn’t be a true noir without a femme fatale, so naturally there’s a mysterious woman, Toni Donne (Maureen O’Hara), who Kitt first bumped into on the train home and who now keeps turning up. Despite her aristocratic roots Toni works in a hat shop, and initially she’s evasively hostile towards Kitt, who basically forces her to see him by asking her to model hats for him. Still annoyed, Toni finally agrees to go to dinner, which turns out to be such a success that she and Kitt take in a street fair and win a balloon or two.


Kitt’s larger problem is that he keeps thinking he hears someone walking with a limp everywhere he goes, and since he’s still not completely recovered from his PTSD, he has to wrestle with his trauma while wondering if he’s really hearing what he’s hearing, plus he seems to be the only one who can hear the mysterious footsteps. It all makes sense in the end, of course.

It’s amazing The Fallen Sparrow was made, seeing as it involved the Spanish Civil War, a conflict involving the Republicans, who were liberals, Socialists, Trotskyites, Stalinists, and anarchists, and the Nationalists, who collaborated with the Nazis and the Fascists. Hemingway may have waxed lyrical about the war in For Whom the Bell Tolls, but the prevailing feeling seemed to be that sensible people stayed out of that melee.


This is probably why James Cagney, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, and George Brent all turned down the role of Kitt; Cagney in particular was fresh from a false accusation of communist sympathies by the Dies Committee and regretted his earlier, temporary support of the Loyalists. Even though the war was problematic from every angle, Hollywood had a fine line to walk because they didn’t want to alienate Spain as a possible ally in the Second World War.

In the end, Garfield was probably the best choice for this movie because he bleeds trauma as Kitt. Marlon Brando is often credited as one of the first actors to sweat in a movie, and while that may be true, Garfield gives him a real run for his money. When Kitt hears those dragging footsteps he honestly looks frozen and afraid. I kept wanting to hand the poor guy a towel and maybe a fluffy pillow or something. Well, that and a gun, because Kitt was up against Walter Slezak’s Dr. Skaas, who goes beyond fantasizing about torture. Put it this way: He carries truth serum with him and knows more about Kitt than he lets on.


As competent as the acting is, though, I thought The Fallen Sparrow was a fairly weak film with too many characters. Maureen O’Hara is luminous, but her Toni seems to exist solely to facilitate meetings between Kitt and Dr. Skaas. There are angles to Toni that are set up, such as Kitt not believing she’s a mother who left behind a daughter in Europe and that she wants to go back to fight the Nazis. Seeing as this idea isn’t introduced until very late in the film it just felt like the writers were trying to shoehorn in a wartime subplot to satisfy the Office of War Information, and it implies a still-unwell Kitt needed to get into the fight somehow. It’s very unnecessary and kills any hope of a satisfying ending.

Honestly, the face-off between Kitt and Dr. Skaas could have made an awesome movie by itself, or maybe it could have been a one-act play structure with everyone in one room and lots of space to build tension, but The Fallen Sparrow doesn’t really go there. I so wish it had because John Garfield makes everything worth it.


Sorry things have been a little light here on the blog lately, but some family stuff got in the way. It’s nothing to worry about, but it had to be dealt with, so yeah, I apologize. Now I’m more than ready to get back to normal (as if that even exists, really), starting with another post that’s coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, all and have a good one…

The Fallen Sparrow is available to own on DVD from Amazon.

~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~

If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.

2 thoughts on “What We Carry With Us

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.