Abraham Polonsky, 1948
Starring: John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, Marie Windsor
A successful Wall Street lawyer from the wrong side of the tracks, Joe Morse, is working under a powerful, white collar gangster, Ben Tucker, who plans to consolidate various small-time gambling outfits in New York City. It just so happens that Joe’s older, harried brother, Leo, owns one such establishment. Though Joe plans to make millions of dollars and help Leo and his small family of loyal employees. Unfortunately a nervous accountant informs on the operation, spelling doom for them all.
While Martin Scorsese has repeatedly stated that Force of Evil was a model for his blue collar gangster films like Goodfellas, it’s also an obvious influence on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Unfortunately director Abraham Polonsky’s film was all but ignored during its release, receiving mild critical appraise at best and, a few years later, it was used to brand Polonsky as a dissident and traitor. He previously rose to acclaim with his script for noir-boxing film Body and Soul (1947), which also starred John Garfield (The Postman Always Rings Twice). Sadly, both men had their careers stalled by the House Un-American Activities Committee trials, where Polonsky was nailed for being a Communist and was blacklisted from Hollywood in 1951. Though he continued working as a writer under an assumed name and later returned to television and then film, it destroyed his career. Garfield was listed as being uncooperative and suspected of Communist activities alongside other film noir actors like Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni. He died soon after the hearings of a heart attack at age 39 in 1952.
This is the finest film from both men and remains a considerable achievement in film noir and ‘40s cinema. The excellent script from Polonsky and novelist Ira Wolfert, upon whose Tucker’s People this film was based, takes noir stereotypes and turns them into something magical. Joe Morse is the film’s hero, villain, and scapegoat. He’s an incredibly complex character -- charming, ruthless, manipulative, and self-loathing -- that represents both white and blue collar sides of business. Though he is corruptible and his primary goal seems to be amassing wealth, he does have good intentions and desire to help those close to him. Unfortunately, his idea of help is self-centered, impulsive, dangerous, and presumptuous, and leads directly to ruin and even death. Yet despite his handsomeness, charm, success, and skill for manipulation, he is also the film’s whipping boy. Other characters blame their greed, corruptibility, and failures on him, which gradually seep into his identity as he realizes the evils of the organization and tries to right his wrongs.
Much of Force of Evil’s subversiveness comes from its depiction of capitalism as the root of all evil, crime, and corruption. Joe spends much of the first act explaining away his behavior, justifying his beliefs that might and manipulation are simply the rational way to live in a modern world. The blatant abuse of human life that ruins so many of the characters in Force of Evil is clearly the fault of business and capitalism; Tucker is merely one crooked businessman out of many and is not the overarching cause of so much misery and defeat. Many of the film’s characters exhibit a disdain for regular people, a lack of sympathy and emotion that would be described today as sociopathic. Unsurprisingly, this personality type is considered by psychologists to be complimentary for the business world.
There is much to recommend about Force of Evil and it is quickly becoming one of my favorites in the noir series. There’s a great score from Laura’s David Raksin, a disturbing and poetic finale that is darker and more depressing than notorious downers like Out of the Past or Double Indemnity, and some truly incredible dialogue. The non- stop sense of tension and relentless pacing are bolstered by some great scenes: there’s one wonderful moment where someone attempts to shoot Joe in an office. The lights are switched off and the chair that he occupied a second before spins in the dark, empty, with the leather shining in the glare of a streetlight. Available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, this is the version I watched and it comes highly recommended – the picture looks phenomenal and – even if you aren’t as obsessed with socialist rhetoric as I am -- the film is an obvious influence on the crime/gangster revival of the ‘70s and ‘80s.