Bright Lights Film Journal

Little Big Man: John Garfield Triumphs in Anatole Litvak’s Out of the Fog

Garfield wraps it up in this 1941 prole drama based on a Group Theatre production

Star John Garfield convincingly delivers worldly truths on two distinct but unified levels in the 1941 film Out of the Fog, directed by Anatole Litvak. The film is an adaptation of Irwin Shaw‘s play The Gentle People written for The Group Theater in New York, whose opening night cast on January 5, 1939 included Elia Kazan, Martin Ritt, Lee J. Cobb, Sam Jaffe, and Sylvia Sidney. Shaw and Robert Rossen penned the film’s screenplay. There is certainly no mistaking its political stance.

Garfield’s visceral acting and Shaw and Rossen’s forceful screenplay compel us, perhaps against our will, to accept Jacob Goff as an amoral, compassionless chiseler (the poisoned look in Goff’s eyes when he is called “chiseler” is captured beautifully by James Wong Howe’s trenchant camerawork). He is a little man, ordinary in his own beginnings, self-created, sparing nothing in his quest for power. He is a thug with an inside “full of rocks,” who carelessly flicks lit cigarettes to the ground and sets wooden boats on fire to watch them burn with the glee of a spoiled brat. His armamentarium of pain includes menacing sneers, verbal threats, slaps, punches, a rubber hose inflicted on a resistant “client’s” back, and a brandished gun. Unlike Garfield’s other film characters, Goff grudgingly exposes a smidgen of vulnerability only when his mission is directly threatened.

Goff taps into and reflects the disenchantment that underlies the lives of the locals in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn (with the exception of George, the good-hearted, ambitionless auctioneer who naively believes that life will be “just swell” for his girl Stella and him, if only she would marry him.)

Goff sets himself apart, neither seeking from nor providing genuine kindness to others. Follow him from foggy dock to smoky restaurant — all exterior scenes are shot as nighttime and/or washed-out fog — and after a while you just want to spit at his forceful puss.

Goff is the product of an education in “the break rods and pool rooms and beer halls and bread lines of the big (American) cities.” He traveled a lawless, shadowy road to the Bay, in parallel with the film’s main characters, who lived their entire lives doing other than what they really wanted to do. This is something Goff claims to have broken free from, but he is dead wrong.

As he introduces himself to Stella, played straightforwardly by Ida Lupino, Goff smells more than her violet perfume as she walks by. He senses her frustration at not knowing what she wants — except to leave Brooklyn — for he has already walked many dark streets in her shoes. He tells her exactly what she wants to hear, and does all of the things that George never does for her — buying her orchids, taking her to a fancy nightclub. Goff has given Stella hope for a new life. She has been waiting to be conquered, not coddled.

The interplay between Stella and Goff is stiff, lacking the magic and eroticism of Bogie and Bacall, for Stella and Goff understand but never articulate that their relationship lacks true depth. There is only the cheap excitement, the intrigue, and the imminent danger in Goff’s lifestyle that perverts Stella’s otherwise sensible nature and feeds Goff’s ego.

Goff’s attempted domination of these ordinary people — his deterministic worldview jousting with their perceived free will — is referred to as “the strong tak(ing) from the weak.” It is a parasitism that reflects the greed at the core of America’s capitalist system. Goff’s successful loan sharking is just another name for the “installment” plan, a scheme that the character Jonah ironically claims makes “every man in America … a king.” When Jonah and his friend Olaf are forced by Goff at gunpoint to pay protection money for their small fishing boat — aptly dubbed the “Enterprise III” — they are signing for a loan of which they will receive not one penny. Goff congratulates his clients, bragging, “There’s no telling where this corporation is going to go.”

The better life that these ordinary men hope for cannot exist within Goff’s leeching economic system. Everyone is trapped. Legal action is shown to be useless. The sun shines for no one in this world.

Clearly, Goff thinks too much of himself, and it is not lost on Shaw and Rossen that Goff is but a middle man in a bigger system whose success — I beg to call it that — can be made possible only through his dependence on people who “work for a living.” With no authentic power, and lacking the basic ability to tread water — strikingly ironic in the film’s maritime milieu — Goff is confirmed a pawn as he drowns in an economic system that punishes those who think themselves greater than it.

Out of the Fog is not a story of good triumphing over evil. The film’s ending was co-opted by censors who would not allow Jonah and Olaf to strike a blow to kill Goff. Divine intervention was permitted, but it strips the fishermen of the power to determine their own destiny.

Viewed through the prism of World War II, Goff assumes a related symbol as the unforgiving force of European fascism, again intimidating the “gentle people” by scaring them into inaction. The townspeople speak of “escape,” “freedom,” and of “wanting peace,” but the roads to these destinations are barricaded.

Stella is young and decent, yet eager to grab onto the merry-go-round, paint her face and catch Goff’s sickness, even at the expense of betraying her incredibly tolerant and loving father, Jonah. She allows herself to be brutalized through her primitive attraction to Goff; she announces to her father that Goff’s rough and tumble lifestyle is “a disease I want to catch.” At her core, Stella shows who we all have the potential to become.

Olaf is a simple man with the soul of a baby, innocently wishing that evil would just disappear so that he could continue to find contentment in fishing, and dream his and Jonah’s dream of buying a bigger boat on which to sail for sunny, Caribbean waters. He acknowledges that heroics may be required to defeat the fascist in the midst, but discourages others from such action. Olaf is too timid to strike a mortal blow. What’s the use, he shrugs?

After absorbing a beating by Goff, Jonah innately understands that continued passivity would bring ruination to his family and village. His only option is to renounce their failed innocence, and to take action to overcome the evil, outside force. Jonah will fight for what he feels is right, for it is natural — “the law of the jungle” — to do so. He will resist the enemy and its “planes and bombs and men with guns in their pockets.” Jonah plans and is party to Goff’s death.

As Goff, Garfield — the progressive, the true common man whose miserable fate it was to be destroyed through the Hollywood Blacklist travesty — reveals the depravity and fantasy of Depression-era capitalist society as he condemns all fascist forces at play in a world at war.