Saturday, February 20, 2010

#60: Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)

Released: December 25, 1948

Director: Abraham Polonsky; Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky and Ira Wolfert based on the novel “Tucker’s People” by Ira Wolfert; Cinematography: George Barnes; Music: David Raskin; Producer: Bob Roberts; Studio: MGM

John Garfield (Joe Morse), Beatrice Pearson (Doris Lowry), Thomas Gomez (Leo Morse), Marie Windsor (Edna Tucker), Howland Chamberlain (Freddie Bauer), Roy Roberts (Ben Tucker), Paul Fix (Bill Ficco), Stanley Prager (Wally), Barry Kelley (Detective Egan)

- "What do you mean 'gangsters?' It's business..."

Here we have the first to fall of the films being predicted as legitimate Top 10 contenders. I’m fully aware of the fact that this directorial debut from Abraham Polonsky has a very passionate following and is considered by many to be among the finest noirs ever made. Truthfully, I have only recently warmed to the film, which I came away from somewhat disappointed when I saw it for the first time. If I had judged it solely on that single viewing experience, this would have placed much lower in the countdown, if it was included at all. I’ve now reached the point where I understand that the strengths of the film far outweigh the key weakness that continues to reveal itself each time I watch.

It is an intriguing plot, concerning a numbers syndicate that is striving to convert their interest in the policy racket into a legitimate business. The idea, as conceived by policy boss Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts) is to bankrupt the smaller numbers banks through a fixed drawing. The idea is that the only banks left standing are those in the syndicate that will move in to set up the legal lottery. Leading this push into the respectable business world is lawyer Joe Morse (John Garfield), whose perspective becomes increasingly muddled as he is pulled deeper into the underworld. While wanting to help his client Tucker, Joe also feels a small sense of loyalty toward his brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), an independent numbers man who refuses to join Tucker’s ruthless combination. Not wanting to see his brother left penniless, Joe first offers him a position in the Tucker group, which Leo sternly refuses. Joe then begins working to try and keep Leo from losing his life savings, while at the same time not ruining the carefully laid plans for the big fix. The deeper Joe gets, the more he realizes that he is going to be forced to make a final decision at some point – either his loyalties are completely with his brother or are completely owned by Tucker.

The general storyline is fantastic, which I assume means that kudos should go to the original source material from Ira Wolfert. The script, on the other hand, is where I find the only glaring flaw in the film. Which is surprising to me, because Polonsky had already proven himself to be an outstanding screenwriter – his script for the previous year’s Body and Soul was wonderful. The issue here is that things are just too damn talky. Characters talk and talk and talk, speaking on topics and things that feel far too unnatural. For instance, when Joe visits Leo to try and bring him into the syndicate, the conversation between the two brothers – both of whom have intimate knowledge of numbers – is like listening to two men recite textbook outlines and definitions of how the policy racket works. Perhaps this is just an artifact of the times and such dialog was necessary to spell out to naïve contemporary audiences precisely how the business works. Still, it doesn’t help the aging of the film. I realize that this might seem like the most minor of complaints, but at this stage such minor issues are what make separating quality films possible.

But the positives far outweigh any negatives, the aforementioned speech included. Even with the awkward monologues outlining underworld schemes, John Garfield turns in his usual sensational performance. There are certainly strong supporting performances from Thomas Gomez and Marie Windsor, but Garfield is the center of everything – his Joe Morse narrates, is the focus of the story, and is the character that the audience becomes emotionally tied to. Few could play the smooth talking tough guy like Garfield. Here he also gives a fully developed performance, showing Joe to be at times sentimental and at times downright ruthless. What becomes compelling is his inability to comprehend the fact that the more he succeeds at his job, the more he hurts people close to him. By the time he comes to this realization, he has lost things that cannot be restored. I don’t think it’s the best performance of Garfield’s career, but that’s only because he has so many impressive achievements on his resume. For almost any other actor, this would likely top a best-of list.

Polonsky shows himself to be very much in control in his debut film. Working with cinematographer George Barnes, the photography is at times beautiful. They also make great use of shadows, although the light-dark contrasts are generally not as stark as other noirs. The location shooting in New York, displaying Wall Street, the Washington Bridge and other locales is very impressive. Some of the sequences truly are remarkable – the ones that instantly come to mind are Joe's stealthy visits to his law office and the final discovery of the body among the rocks under the bridge.

Much has been written about the implications of this film on the lives and careers of director and star. Both Polonsky and Garfield would be blacklisted shortly afterward on the basis of the perception that Force of Evil was an indictment of the capitalist system by the two left-leaning personalities. There is no question of the consequences that resulted from this belief, but I’ve never really examined the movie at this level. I never feel sympathy for anyone in the movie, Leo included, so have trouble distinguishing who is being exploited by the system. I just take it at face value, which means enjoying a damn fine film.


  1. Wow this is definitely a top 10 noir in my opinion. I actually do consider this Garfield's best role. The scene where he descends "into an allegorical hell" to discover his brothers body on the rocks was very powerful. It is clearly an attack on capitalism and greed. Polonsky shows how corruption can spread and hurt multiple people like a disease. The innocent people are Leo's employees who are a stand-in for regular American workers being cast aside and exploited. He is being very subversive by comparing capitalism to gambling or the numbers racket. He shows his contempt for America's financial system by linking it to a shadowy illegal operation. In some ways this film is like a harbinger to our current economic crisis where greed has dire consequences for society and the general population.....M.Roca

  2. Dave, the one time I taught a film class I used Force of Evil as my example of noir and pre-blacklist leftist cinema. You're quite right about the awkwardness of the script -- I remember one stretch of narrative in which each sentence seemed to end in "there." But the story has an impervious power that transcends the cumbersome writing and alleged message that got the creators in trouble. I might have it a little higher on a list of my own, but it wouldn't be top-ten material, and you judge it quite fairly overall.

  3. Sorry Dave, but you are way off here. If you purport to rank a series of films, you can't take anything "at face value". Force of Evil is not only perhaps the greatest noir of the 40s, but also one of the great 40s Hollywood movies.

    You have missed the point of the script and the dialog. The script is not so much a leftist indictment, rather a critique of criminality as a business, and the intelligent viewer can make his own connection. The scene where the two brothers talk of the numbers racket is not mere exposition. It is incredibly subtle and powerful and also serves to:

    . show that the numbers racket operates just like any other business only it is crooked, and
    . deftly establish the history and nature of the relationship between the two brothers.

    Also the sing-song aspect of the dialog is a major artistic achievement. For example, this opening voice-over by Garfield is sheer poetry:

    “This is Wall Street… and today was important because tomorrow – July Fourth – I intended to make my first million dollars. An exciting day in any man’s life. Temporarily, the enterprise was slightly illegal. You see I was the lawyer for the numbers racket.”

    The teaming of DP Barnes with Polonsky is masterful - remember this is Polonksy's directorial debut. The assurance displayed by Polonsky is breathtaking: from the lighting and camera-work, to the editing and pacing. The mis-en-scene and the mood established by the lighting of internal shots and camera placement inform the narrative throughout.

    Garfield dominates, but Gomez' performance is equally powerful, and the hard-edged and almost jazz score by David Raksin is used to brilliant effect.

  4. Dave, I've only seen this film once (I had it on a rental, but intend to buy a copy in the future and watch it again) but must say I thought it was magnificent, both for the moody camerawork and for the sheer poetry of the language. I've read somewhere that the lines will actually break up into blank verse, and, though I'm not sure if that is true in practice, I do think it has the same sort of power as dialogue in a good stage play and I remember liking the scene you found too wordy. I do also remember being impressed by the attack on greed, which is there in Garfield's earlier movie 'Out of the Fog', already discussed in your countdown, too.

  5. M.Roca - "The innocent people are Leo's employees who are a stand-in for regular American workers being cast aside and exploited. He is being very subversive by comparing capitalism to gambling or the numbers racket." - I understand this, it just doesn't hit me as hard as it apparently does other people. The "innocent" people I never really feel sorry for, so some of the impact is blunted in my case. This is just a slight difference in personal opinion between us. I obviously like the the film or it wouldn't even be this high, I just rank it a bit lower than most.

    Samuel - Good stuff. I don't disagree with what you're saying, but in use any kind of personal opinion I have to be honest with how I feel about the film, which you seem to understand.

    Tony - "Sorry Dave, but you are way off here. If you purport to rank a series of films, you can't take anything "at face value". Force of Evil is not only perhaps the greatest noir of the 40s, but also one of the great 40s Hollywood movies."

    - No worries, Tony, I expected to take flack for this one. But I have no intention of lying about how I feel toward a film. I'm not going to love all of the classics as everybody else does and I acknowledge that I'm in the extreme minority on this one. We'll just have to disagree on the scene where the brothers talk about the numbers racket. I don't care what it's trying to lay out, it's awkward.

    If I didn't tend to take this film "at face value" I would have probably enjoyed it less. But what fun would this countdown be, Tony, if we agreed on every choice? If that was the case I'd pack things up now and end it.

    Judy - I agree on the "magnificent camerawork" but can only partially agree concerning the dialog. The voice-overs, as Tony rightly points out, really are outstanding. But scenes like the one I highlight just did not work for me.

    - Hopefully folks don't lose site of the fact that I truly do like this film... I only included the criticism to show why I ranked it here and not much higher. Putting it at #60 is not an insult, I'm just using my own judgment on these, as I have the entire countdown.

  6. Dave, This is classic noir, a dynamic strong look at the downside of American capitalism. Garfield's character reminds me of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. They are both saying the same thing "Greed is good" and natural. Today with the globalization of business, the financial mess we are in today, the film still sends a strong message. Don't know if this is top 10 or not, have not thought it out, but I do feel it should be higher #60.

    I echo Tony's comments on the teaming of George Barnes and Polonsky.... and the music.

  7. John - Thanks for stopping by with the usual great comments... and I am obviously in the minority on this one. Just in my own defense, the reason I say that I go with the "at face value" approach on this one, is that the "Greed is good" Wall Street comparison is one that apparently doesn't connect as well for me as for most everyone else. I am fully aware of what Polonsky was doing and trying to say with the screenplay, but the comparison doesn't work as well for me because we're dealing with the underworld and gangsters, where the "greed is good" principle is the equivalent of morals in the underworld. It's not something that would be reprehensible, or at the very least unsettling, in among gangsters. Which means you then have to go to what Tony describes, in that Polonsky is arguing that the numbers racket is just like other business, only crooked. I would agree with there being similarities, but calling them the same is something I can't get on board with. Normal business might use similar practices, but despite what conspiracy theorists might say, then don't tend to murder you when you resist. Or is Polonsky arguing that the whole system has reached that point and everybody just can't see it? I can't get on board with that either.

    I understand that the underworld is being used as a cipher, but perhaps it just comes down to me not agreeing with some of the connections being drawn.

    I might just need to stop defending this one as I am... as it is seeming like I'm trying to continually criticize a movie that I like, albeit a bit less than those that have responded. But I'm just clarifying some things a bit, that's all. Great discussions thus far, though.

  8. This is one of the greatest of noirs, and while I expected you would take some heat here, as always you are the consumate sport. This is a topical contect here (John Greco spells it out quite admirably) and this is one of David Raskin's most memorable scores. This may well be the darkest, seediest and most claustrophobic film in all of noir, and it's one of it's most cynical, a no-holds barred assault on the capitalist system, intimating as it does that characters are part of their environment, and that capitalism breeds decadence. Garfield plays his most "affluent" role here, and Barnes (who won an Oscar for REBECCA) turns in some stunning work here.

    Excellent essay Dave, including the historical perspective of the blacklisting.

  9. Incidentally, as much as I respect Samuel and usually agree with him, I do NOT even remotely concur that the script for FORCE OF EVIL is "awkward." Quite the contrary in fact.

  10. Dave, Lloyd Fonville at his mardecortesbaja blog had this to say a while back about the nature of the 'criminality' in Force of Evil ( in a marvelously perceptive observation:

    "[Garfield is] a tough guy on the make who chooses a life of crime, but he thinks it's going to be "respectable", white-collar crime -- until he's dragged into the violence and thuggery that underpins the rackets he believes he can manipulate. This distinguishes him from the gangsters of the 30s, gives him a kind of innocence, though it's innocence of a curious sort. He and a number of the film's characters make a distinction in their minds between "honest", harmless criminality, mere corruption, and the "evil" criminality of men who resort to violence... [Polonsky is] less concerned with moral bewilderment and confusion than with the wholesale structural corruption of American society. The lines between good and bad are ultimately very clear in Polonsky's universe, and he posits off-screen forces that are gathering to fight the corruption of the system, forces which Garfield's character will eventually decide to join."

  11. Thanks for the link, Tony, that is a wonderful blog that I had never visited before. I can't really argue with this reading of what Polonsky meant to do. I really can't argue with the fact that he was able to do it. I guess it's just that I personally don't agree with some of these critiques... or better put, don't take the critiques quite as far as Polonsky feels they need to be.

    But, as even you point out in your comment at Lloyd Fonville's blog, this is still a film that can be appreciated just as much as a straight melodrama or crime thriller. That's how it works best for me. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. The fact that it connects with you (and apparently everybody but me! :)) best as a social critique speaks highly of Polonsky and the film.

    Thanks again for the outstanding comments, Tony... great stuff, makes all of this fun for me.

  12. Sam J: To the extent that Polonsky aims at prose poetry in his dialogue and especially in the narration each of us is going to have to judge it according to one's own aesthetic sense. To my ear, some of the narration sounds pretty clunky. You're free to hear it differently.

    To everyone: Is it me or is there a general claim that Force deserves extra credit for social relevance? To an extent I agree with the idea, because there's a clear point to make by contrasting the "just business" ethos with the pre-capitalist clannishness that usually characterizes organized crime, so that Gomez's wonderfully realized oldschool numbers man comes off more sympathetically. Eliminate crime from the context and, as Polonsky suggests, you have capitalism in general. But our discussion only proves the inescapable subjectivity of all our listmaking, since no one has to agree that relevance or social critique automatically elevates a film.

  13. "Sam J: To the extent that Polonsky aims at prose poetry in his dialogue and especially in the narration each of us is going to have to judge it according to one's own aesthetic sense. To my ear, some of the narration sounds pretty clunky. You're free to hear it differently."

    Indeed Samuel! Which is what I did! LOL!

  14. I like this film a lot as well, it's a great choice. I'd somewhat agree that some of the voiceovers are awkward and clunky, but that's a pretty minor quibble in a film that's mostly sharp, intelligent and visually exciting. Curiously, I thought the opposite of Dave: the dialogue was often enjoyably pulpy and crackling, while the voiceovers were sometimes eye-rolling. But the rest of the film more than makes up for the occasional misstep in the voiceover.

    And its socialist thematic undercurrent — suggesting that criminality is intrinsic to capitalist business — is forcefully stated and surprisingly well-developed considering the era in which it was made.