FORCE OF EVIL A
USA (78 mi) 1948 d: Abraham Polonsky
Whatever he tries to do is wrong. Because it has to be wrong. Because the situation is such that whatever you do is wrong. All films about crime are about capitalism, because capitalism is about crime. I mean, quote-unquote, morally speaking. At least that's what I used to think. Now I'm convinced.
—Abraham Polonsky, from Red Hollywood (1996)
One of the neglected gems of the 1940’s, a unique experience in American film history, described as “one of the fiercest dissections of laissez faire capitalism ever to come out of Hollywood” by Nicholas Christopher in his book Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City, this is a brilliant Black and White film noir with John Garfield at his best as an attorney who works for a mobster and finds himself, and his brother (Thomas Gomez), caught in a numbers racket scheme. When one points to cynicism, this may be what they had in mind, as this film is all about attitude, trying to get over in a foolproof way of beating the system. Screw the other guy, as in the Wall Street jungle, it’s all about self preservation. Very few films compare to Bogart and Bacall, with Out of the Past (1947) being one of them, and this is another. Particularly notable for its unusual, highly stylized and poetic dialogue, where one can almost hear the voice of Bogie reading them, with a standout voiceover that compares with the best, becoming one of the more radical inventions of 1940’s cinema. Having written the intense screenplay for Garfield in Body and Soul (1947), a boxer who defies the mob and refuses to throw a fight, seen as a victim of a ruthless capitalistic system where the fix is in, the film is as much Polonsky’s as director Robert Rossen’s, where Polonsky allegedly prevented the director from altering the finale. FORCE OF EVIL is Polonsky’s sole example of his directing brilliance before he was blacklisted and could only work as an uncredited screenwriter for both films and television over the next twenty years. Garfield suffered a worse fate, having grown up in poverty in the streets of New York during the Depression, where he became associated with gritty, hard-nosed, and working-class characters, and while his wife was a communist, there’s no indication Garfield was ever a member, nonetheless the House Un-American Activities Committee hounded Garfield to his death, as after his original testimony, he learned they were reviewing his testimony for possible perjury charges, where he died at the age of 39 of a heart attack, allegedly aggravated by the stress of the blacklisting. Both Polonsky and Garfield were blacklisted as much for the tone of their films as their politics, where Polonsky’s heroes are cocky, self-assured loners who are outside the mainstream of society, the kind of guys that break the rules in order to get ahead, often disregarding the interests of others. These were not the cardboard cut out caricatures of morally righteous men that dominated Hollywood cinema. Polonsky also wrote a part for a washed-up boxer (Canada Lee, who also died shortly after being blacklisted) in Body and Soul (1947), one of the earlier examples of a black character portrayed with such humanity, a man exploited whose feelings and emotions mattered, exactly the kind of challenging work that was viewed as critical of America and raised the suspicions of the HUAC Committee.
Released as a B-movie, adapted from Ira Wolfert’s 1943 novel Tucker’s People, this is an underworld thriller completely ignored in its time, while it’s now seen as a cult classic, where The Hollywood Reporter complained that the direction was “more concerned with plugging the verbose dialogue than in achieving action and dramatic values,” while modern critics now praise the film for exactly those same qualities. An outgrowth of the Group Theatre collective of the 1930’s where its New York City members agonized over whether film work in Hollywood was tantamount to selling out, the work was a major influence on director Martin Scorsese who called the film a seminal influence on his own gangster dramas Mean Streets (1973) and Goodfellas (1990), claiming nobody played guilt better than Garfield, where Garfield’s conflicted anti-hero brought a cynical edge to the picture. Something of a morality play, Garfield plays Joe Morse, a selfish, Wall Street lawyer who grew up on the streets of New York and whose sole client is mobster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts) who controls the numbers racket, a man with an office so high that it’s practically “in the clouds” overlooking Wall Street, while his brother Leo (Gomez) is a small-time numbers operator. Both become casualties of their ultimate desire for success, where organized crime becomes the family business, corrupted by the process while seeking the American dream. Looking behind the veneer of fair play, these men align themselves with outlaws and criminals, trying to catch a break by cheating and fixing the books, which is seen as the real American way in a cutthroat capitalistic system. Polonsky was the son of a Jewish pharmacist growing up in New York, graduating from City College and Columbia Law School while developing a strong political conscience early in life when nothing had a greater social impact than the Great Depression, “I came of age in a country that had come to a standstill, with fifty million unemployed and the banks closed.” Polonsky landed a career writing for radio in the late 1930’s, including Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre of the Air, before deciding to work as the educational director and newspaper editor of a regional CIO union north of New York City. Even after being hired as a screenwriter by Paramount in 1945, Polonsky remained an unapologetic Marxist with a commitment to leftist values that never wavered, where he continued as an educator throughout his life. A quarter of a century before THE GODFATHER (1972), Polonsky’s ultimate masterpiece exposes the striking similarities between American business and organized crime, where Scorsese notes, “It’s not just the individual who’s corrupted, but the entire system.” Polonsky crafts a film that describes the greed at the heart of American capitalism, where in his view, while wealth and power comprise success in America, they also contribute to spiritual and physical ruination.
The film opens with the matter-of-fact offscreen voice of Joe Morse speaking over an overhead shot of Wall Street where cars and pedestrians are seen like ants scurrying below, “Tomorrow, July 4th, I intended to make my first million dollars...temporarily, the enterprise was slighty illegal, you see I was the lawyer for the numbers racket...The suckers bet on any combination of three numbers. Twenty million bettors a day in the United States, an annual income of over $100,000,000...it seemed a shame so much good money to go to waste in other people's pockets...” The mob controls the gambling racket, and the fix is in for popular number “776” to come up a winner on the 4th of July, a scheme that will force the small time operators to go out of business when they’re unable to make all the winning payouts, allowing Tucker to swoop in and gain a controlling monopoly. Morse has developed his own philosophy where he believes the only “natural” human reaction is greed, not guilt, calling anyone not included in their scam “suckers,” where he’s completely dismissive of ordinary people. Morse’s conflict, however, is he wants to save his brother Leo from going under, like the other small-time operators expected to go belly up, so without revealing the actual details of the scam, he tries to get him in on the swindle, but has little luck convincing him, as Leo is a proud and seemingly morally upright business operator who has to be reminded by Joe that he’s actually working for a criminal enterprise, where characters keep forgetting that they’re not actually honest men, that they're crooks. The duality of their relationship is built into the script, one feeling forced into evil and the other talking himself into believing he’s a good man even though both are complicit in the same corrupt system, where one wants millions while the other is content to settle for thousands, making the point that racketeering is not so different from other businesses in a capitalist society, except it’s theft on a grander scale, exactly like The Emperor Jones (1933), where a moral distinction is made between the nickel and dime small-time theft and the real thieves that steal millions, major players who always seem to come out on top smelling like roses. Drawn into the conflict is Leo’s secretary Doris (Beatrice Pearson in her film debut, before eventually returning back to a life on the stage), who overhears the brother’s argument in Leo’s office, whose naïve innocence attracts Joe, who is otherwise having a sordid affair with Tucker’s scene stealing femme fatale wife, Edna (Marie Windsor), where there’s an interesting parallel between the women and the good/bad dichotomy of the brothers. The role of Doris plays into the complexity of the movie’s themes, as she projects a clean, all American girl image, yet she’s been a secretary for a criminal operation for several years. After she gets arrested, when Leo’s operation is busted by the cops from an internal tip, this moral stain plays prominently in her decisions, as only afterwards does she allow herself to be drawn into Joe’s more contemptible world, as if it’s a way of expressing how much she loathes herself for getting caught up in these murky waters. Their sexual tension, however, is expressed nearly entirely through the crackle of their seductive dialogue, where she’s undeniably drawn to Joe’s naked self-interest and nefarious lifestyle. After awhile, the tone of her initial innocence seems as world weary as Garfield’s pessimistic voiceover, both conveying the mood of classic film noir, where emotions get swept under a tidal wave of criminal deceit.
The driving force behind the film is Garfield, perhaps best known for his sizzling performance with Lana Turner in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), which shocked the nation when Garfield was seen onscreen using his tongue when kissing Turner, but also established Garfield as a matinee idol with raw sex appeal. More rough-edged than most leading men, he is rugged, broad-shouldered, displaying a certain sexual swagger as he attempts to charm his way out of trouble, smooth under pressure, even when on the wrong side of the law, but also strong-willed and verbally combative, known for taking things personally, usually ending up fighting through the ethical morass to set things straight, where he never gives anything less than a compelling performance. Standing up to Joe in this film is his brother Leo, an honorable man who cares about the people that work for him, always looking ruffled and disheveled with sweat pouring off his brow, a more neurotic everyman who is disgusted by the mob and the way they threaten and intimidate, wanting out of the business altogether when they take over, but the more he wants out, the more Joe reels him back in, trying to protect him by forcing him to accept conditions that he stopped questioning long ago. The film has very modern implications, even when written more than half a century ago, as our current time is fraught with the same implications of the predatory practices of capitalism, with rampant capitalistic mergers and acquisitions, often under shady circumstances, where larger corporations are continually swallowing up smaller companies in order to monopolize the competition, all in the name of interglobal free markets. Today Wall Street institutions can be blamed for insatiable greed and opportunism, but also for destroying the lives of so many ordinary people. The film’s title was never more apt, as every character is touched and tainted by the same allure, even against their will, as they simply can’t stop themselves. Relentlessly grim, the film is enhanced by the bold visual stylization from cinematographer George Barnes, using abstract compositions, alternating between high and low angles, conveying a claustrophobic world of difficult choices, where he creates a strangely unpopulated city that emphasizes the bold architectural grandiosity of the buildings and facades, while the streets remain virtually empty, where many images are meant to resemble Edward Hopper paintings. Especially impressive is the final sequence, a climactic descent winding their way down a stone stairway to the rocks below under the George Washington Bridge along the Hudson River, “I just kept going down and down there. It was like going down to the bottom of the world,” a wrenching journey into the criminal underworld, complete with perilous consequences, which is such a stunner that it was likely in Hitchcock’s mind when shooting Vertigo (1958) under the Golden Gate Bridge. The film tanked at its unfathomable 1948 Christmas holiday release (who in Hollywood thought this was a Christmas movie?), where the assistant director, by the way, was Robert Aldrich, who would go on to direct the apocalyptic film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), no slouch himself, often thought of as the film that spelled the end of the film noir era, while this film was selected to the National Film Registry in 1994.