In contrast to the convoluted plots so common in noir, this is a simple story. Just out of the army, Nick Blake (John Garfield) returns to New York to find his girlfriend has given the money he left in her keeping to another man. After clearing up that little business, he takes off for Los Angeles, where he is talked into fleecing a rich widow, Gladys Halvorson (Geraldine Fitzgerald.) Guess what? He falls for her and wants out, but has to deal with his vengeful accomplices. The plot is unoriginal but also foolproof, and the film's leisurely pace and rich characterizations are the primary appeal, evoking a raffish, Runyonesque world. Leading the troupe of colorful character actors is George Tobias as Blake's sidekick Al Doyle, who doesn't do much except tag along for the ride, cracking wise in thick New Yorkese and complaining bitterly when he realizes Nick has "gone overboard for this tomato." Walter Brennan is Pop Gruber, Nick's boyhood mentor in crime, now down on his luck and scraping a living with a telescope, selling "the moon and stars for a dime" and picking the pockets of his drunken customers. Then there's cadaverous, sinister George Colouris as Doc, a has-been con man consumed by jealousy of Nick. Even the smallest charactersfrom an ex-jockey bellboy to the counterman in an all-night diner who can't stand to hear the words "java" or "pal"add flavor; they're a great bunch of "cheap, hungry chiselers." Richard Gaines (Jean Arthur's fiancé, Mr. Pendergast, in THE MORE THE MERRIER) is also amusing as Manning, the widow's business manager, whose only interest in life is golf. Only Faye Emerson, as the nightclub singer who betrayed Nick while he was overseas and keeps turning up for vague plot purposes, misfires; she sings well, but she's a little too bony, toothy and disgruntled for a femme fatale.
When someone suggests that after his sabbatical in the army Nick might not be up to conning the widow, he snaps scornfully, "For me that would be like turning over in bed." The same is true for Garfield playing this morally-conflicted-tough-guy rolebut he never lets you feel he's just going through the motions. His performance is split between his "Jewish Jimmy Cagney" persona, spitting out lines like, "Come up with a rod and I'll make you eat it," and his sexy romancer mode. When he turns on the charm, his mark starts to melt like a snowman under a sun lamp. (I can sympathize, being a pushover for Garfield myself.) Geraldine Fitzgerald is lovely and gracious, with a frail, childlike innocence guaranteed to soften the toughest guy.
There are some scenes in smoky back-rooms, and a terrific show-down on a misty oil rig, but this noir is really about as dark as chocolate ice cream. It's full of low-key charm, often stemming from the culture clash between the mugs and the ritzy world they invade. Nick belies his pose as a sophisticate by making paper airplanes out of his program during a concert of classical music. ("Don't you adore Bach?" Manning asks, and Al, awoken from a deep slumber, replies, "Bock? Yeah, cold, with a nice big head on it.") Nick is also uncomfortable leading Gladys through a rumba ("A man looks sort of silly doing this") and looks like a fish out of water when she takes him to the mission of San Juan Capistrano. As was the case with Garfield (the former Julie Garfinkle) in Hollywood, it's precisely Nick's streetwise grit and bad-boy charm that win over the classy dame.
NOBODY LIVES FOREVER was the last film at Warner Brothers for both Garfield and Fitzgerald, who were equally thrilled to escape the studio. Garfield went on to form an independent company that produced his finest films, including BODY AND SOUL and FORCE OF EVIL. He and many others had good reason to resent the studio's relentless pigeonholing and the poor material they were sometimes forced to accept; but this farewell film is a reminder of what the factory system had going for it: a reliable output of supremely watchable movies. With its witty script, easy craftsmanship and excellent cast, NOBODY LIVES FOREVER is a prime example of how good an average, formulaic studio product could be during Hollywood's "golden age." It's a shame that, like so much of Garfield's output, this film is so hard to find.