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"In a world at war many sparrows must fall" are the ominous words that open the 1943 film noir The Fallen Sparrow directed by Richard Wallace. That sparrow could be Kit McKittrick (John Garfield), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who was psychologically tortured in a Franco prison camp from which he has escaped. The aftermath of that torture sends Kit on a path to near madness as he returns to New York to investigate the mysterious death of his friend Louie. Haunted by the memory of a sadistic man with a limp, he finds himself surrounded by Nazi spies who all want a certain precious artifact he has kept with him all the way from Spain.
The Fallen Sparrow was adapted from the novel by suspense writer Dorothy B. Hughes who also penned such notable books as In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse. RKO bought the rights to the novel in 1942, but the political backdrop involving Nazi villains and Spanish Fascists was a bit of a hot-button issue at the time. RKO executive William Gordon fired off a memo to producer Robert Fellows that stated his three "areas of concern" about the story's content: "1. Desire of State Department to maintain friendliest relations with present Spanish government. 2. Possibility of Spain as ally. 3. Offensive to most Latin Americans." He even suggested that the film's reference location should be changed from Spain to Nazi-invaded France. Similarly, Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration wrote to RKO saying, "We strongly urge that you consult your Foreign Department as to the advisability of the Spanish angle contained in this picture." Fellows chose to not be deterred by such warnings and moved forward with the film keeping all political angles and locations intact.
RKO spent six months looking for the right star to play Kit. James Cagney was offered the part, but he wanted nothing to do with The Fallen Sparrow since he was anxious to put his past personal support of Spanish Loyalists behind him. Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, and George Brent all were approached. All said no. Finally John Garfield, an actor known for playing tough urban parts, was hired on loan to RKO from Warner Bros. It was a good career move for Garfield who stretched his acting muscles in new directions and won praise for his tense portrayal of the psychologically complex Kit.
In an unusual role for her, auburn-haired beauty Maureen O’Hara co-stars as Kit's femme fatale love interest. Character actor Walter Slezak also adds a deliciously sinister touch to his role as the mysterious Dr. Skaas, a professor fascinated by the effects of psychological torture. The Fallen Sparrow was edited by Robert Wise, just one year before becoming a film director himself and going on to win Oscars for such classics as West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).
Producer: Robert M. Fellows
Director: Richard Wallace
Screenplay: Warren Duff, based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Mark-Lee Kirk
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editing: Robert Wise
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: John Garfield (John "Kit" McKittrick), Maureen O'Hara (Toni Donne), Walter Slezak (Dr. Skaas), Patricia Morison (Barby Taviton), Martha O'Driscoll (Whitney Parker), Bruce Edwards (Ab Parker), John Miljan
by Andrea Passafiume