DUST BE MY DESTINY opens with some exciting below-the-line talent. Names like Robert Rossen (screenplay), Max Steiner (music) and James Wong Howe (cinematography) flash by in quick succession. Also, within the first 7 mins there's a fistfight between Ward Bond and John Garfield. That's pretty fun.
Joe Bell (John Garfield) plays a man who had the unfortunate instinct to help a man who was shot after a holdup and ended up serving 16 months for the crime (which he didn't commit). This, understandably, makes Joe a little embittered and sour on humanity in general. Enter the dame (Priscilla Lane) and she starts to slowly dissolve a tiny bit of that gigantic chip that Joe has on his shoulder. What we have here though is a pretty gritty drama with some trappings of romance inside. The movie truly feels noirish in a lot of way (not the least of which coming from Wong Howe's cinematography). It's a tale dripping with fatalism though which I always find to be the driving force behind all the best films noir. That sense of being trapped, in a character not being able to get a break and have that happy ending that you might come to expect from the escapist movie world. "Happy ever after" was basically the antithesis of what noir was all about. Some might call it cynicism, others might call it something more akin to "reality". Myself, I fall somewhere in the middle, depending on my frame of mind. All that said, it should be noted that John Garfield is a fondly remembered actor for good reason. He is often quite at home bringing some subtle shreds of humanity to damaged, doomed characters. He is one of those guys that you watch on screen and believe a little bit more than other actors. What he's bringing to the roles seems to be coming from some real place, and has a genuine nature to it that I feel cannot be faked no matter how much an actor might want it. He's absolutely one of a kind and one of the best their ever was.
This film also has some interesting pedigree to it. There's a certain CASABLANCA factor here in that the film was written by the duo of Julius & Philip Epstein and produced by Hal B. Wallis. Also, it has Claude Rains! This film was a few years before CASABLANCA, but nonetheless it is always exciting to see this team come together. In the cinematography department, James Wong Howe makes another showing. That man can handle a camera like no other.
Allow me to take a moment to talk about Claude Rains. It's not a revelatory statement, but he is truly one of our greatest actors.
John Garfield plays an uncharacteristicly nerdy , nervous type here. He plays an amateur inventor - kind of a low-rent Randall Peltzer type named Rims Rosson. He's a dreamer though and the adorable Anne Shirley finds him to be the man for her. What follows is a mostly lighthearted drama about the two of them trying to work things out, mostly financially. It shares a certain sad outlook to DUST BE MY DESTINY, but with a softer more optimistic touch. I've come to notice more and more lately the emphasis on economics that so many of the films of this period had. It makes sense when I think about it. Audiences at the time certainly liked stories about poor struggling folks and almost as much as they liked stories about rich folks, with elaborate sets and costumes. When I watch a movie like this it really does make me count my blessings for some reason. Granted it's done, as I said, in lighter way for at least part of the film, but when it starts to turn sadder and darker it was that approach that allowed me to go with it and empathize even more. It's a tiny bit like a film that starts out screwball and goes to romance and then to a kitchen-sink drama. The cast really carries it ultimately.