DOROTHY B. HUGHES – The Fallen Sparrow. Duell, Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1942. Paperback editions include: Dell #31, mapback edition, 1943 or 1944; Bantam, 1970/1979; Carroll & Graf, 1988.

THE FALLEN SPARROW. RKO, 1943. John Garfield, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Slezak, Patricia Morison, John Banner, John Miljan, Hugh Beaumont. Screenplay by Warren Duff. Directed by Richard Wallace.

   I’ve long been impressed by Dorothy B. Hughes’ ability to put the reader into the head of her protagonists while writing in the third person. In a Lonely Place featured a murderous sociopath; here it’s a paranoid who really is being persecuted, but in both cases we follow a narrative in which we’re not always quite sure of what is actually happening to the central character . Or if we can trust that he’s reading it right

   Sparrow opens two years before the story proper starts. Kit McKitrick, young, rich and idealistic, joined the International Brigade to fight Facism in Spain. As things fell apart he snatched some valuable relics from a looter, then spent two year in a prison cell being tortured to give up their whereabouts. His most vivid memory of that time is the periodic visits of a man he never saw… a limping man from Berlin, whose arrival always brought on new and more painful torment.

   Then we switch to New York City in Wartime, with Kit returned to his Park Avenue crowd, thanks to an escape engineered (he thinks) by a longtime cop-pal who plunged to his death from a window while Kit was recuperating out West. The papers say it was accident or suicide, Kit knows it was murder.

   This forms the springboard for a perfectly crafted tale of murder and subversion among the Smart Set, as Kit’s mission of detection becomes a journey of discovery that uncovers some troubling truths about the people he once called friends – and about himself.

   Hughes builds suspense with some clever twists: Kit starts hearing the limping man from Berlin here in New York — or does he? Then he learns that his captors engineered his “escape” from Spain as a ploy to get him to lead them to the relics. Or did they? And suddenly, in his mind (and ours?) he is as much hunter as hunted.

   When RKO filmed this the next year they wisely did it in early-noir style, with a few nods to The Maltese Falcon (1941) spiced up with expressionist lighting and oppressive camera angles. This being wartime, there are a couple of patriotic speeches about Why We Fight, but by and large the emphasis is on McKitrcick’s fragile sanity.

   Producer Robert Fellows (Hondo, The Screaming Mimi, Ring of Fear, etc.) casts this perfectly, with a trio of femmes fatales that includes Maureen O’Hara (icily coiffed and made up in an Audrey Totter look) Patricia Morision and Martha O’Driscoll. John Banner, Erford Gage and Hugh Beaumont skulk around nicely in the background under the sinister supervision of Walter Slezak as a wheelchair-bound (or is he?) aristocrat with an interest in torture and the Borgias, chewing the scenery with voracious relish.

   And best of all, there’s John Garfield, that edgiest of leading men, as the half-crazy hero of the piece. Nobody could convey angst like Garfield, and he sinks into the role wonderfully, veering from manic energy to desperation with a tic of the cheek. He even seems to sweat on cue!

   Scenarist Warren Duff (who produced Out of the Past) streamlines Hughes’ book quite well, shortcutting past some of the novel’s digressions and wisely letting the actors convey their characters’ complexities. The result is a film that brings the book to life and makes it pure Cinema — and a fun movie to watch.