In the opening scene of Nobody Lives Forever, wounded WW2 Nick Blake (John Garfield) is heard in voice-over introducing his home-town as the New York sky-line – viewed from his military hospital bed – moves across the screen. After he is honourably discharged, Nick heads straight to his apartment to find his girl (Faye Emerson) and the 50 g’s she has been keeping for him. Turns out she has two-timed him with a crooked lothario who shares her bed and the running of a night-club, where she sings. When confronted, she claims she lost his dough in a club venture that failed.
Nick who by now we gather was an ace con-man before he was drafted, knows better, and after roughing up the new boyfriend gets his money back plus interest. His loyal side-kick Al (George Tobias), who was the only person to greet him when he left the military hospital, wants Nick to get back into the ‘game’. But Nick wants a holiday, and they head for the beach in sunny California, where they proceed to blow the readies in a plush beach-house. Nick is not happy, walking aimlessly along the beach, sullen and withdrawn, and indifferent to the swim-suited babes running in the sand. He has looked up his old friend, Pop (Walter Brennan), an old grifter reduced to lifting wallets from carney suckers as they stare through his dime-a-view telescope. They will keep in touch.
Another has-been from the old days, Doc (George Coulouris), holed-up in a cheap hotel with a couple of low-rent heavies, has a mark, but no cash to finance the con. A lonely rich widow worth a cool $2 million is staying in a nearby exclusive hotel. Doc, who resents his lowered straits, gets wind of Nick’s being in town, and through Pop, they entice Nick into putting up the money, but to the chagrin of Doc, Nick insists he handle the con himself.
The rest of the story plays out predictably, with a final shoot-out on a fog-laden wharf.
W.R Burnett adapted his novel ‘I Wasn’t Born Yesterday’ for the screenplay. Burnett wrote stronger stories than this one – two successfully made into great noirs – High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle. Burnett’s protagonists typically find a dark redemption in losing. Burnett’s writing while hard-boiled has a lyrical quality that reconciles the doomed trajectory of his anti-heroes, who crash out like a comet across the night sky. In Nobody Lives Forever, Burnett engineers a redemption by proxy.
Nobody Lives Forever is very much more than the sum of its parts. A great cast, the accomplished direction of Jean Negulesco (The Mask of Dimitrios, Road-House), and the rich photography of veteran DP Arthur Edeson, deliver for the discerning viewer a rich and satisfying complexity.
The cast is really superb. Garfield’s signature integrity gives Nick a depth that sustains close scrutiny. Geraldine Fitzgerald is iridescent as the widow; a mature woman of calm beauty and deep feeling, who any man would fall for. Tobias does nicely as a comic foil. Brennan imbues the washed-up old man with a real pathos, and Coulouris is his feverish best as the envious distrusting hood who once had ‘class’.
Paradoxically, Nick has come back from the war not so much damaged, but uncertain and angry about his life before the war. He has the male pride of a hood on the top of his game, but he is vulnerable. Betrayed by the woman he left behind, and in a different and more profound way betrayed by the person he used to be. The futility and violence of the war, and the valour and decency of his comrades, has been subversive. He is cranky and aimless on the sunny beach, because his old life is no longer what he wants. The modern Greek poet George Seferis evoked this kind of angst in one of his poems: “We found our life was a mistake, and we changed our life.” It will take the love of a good woman and a violent paroxysm for Nick’s alienation to find a path to redemption. Charon will also exact a heavy price. “Nobody lives forever.”
Warner Archive will release the never-available-before DVD of Nobody Lives Forever on July 19. Pre-order from Amazon.