Friday, July 22, 2011

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: Force of Evil (1948)

Force of Evil (1948) ****
Directed by: Abraham Polonsky.
Written by: Abraham Polonsky and Ira Wolfert based on the novel by Ira Wolfert.
Starring: 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 (Det. Egan), Paul McVey (Hobe Wheelock).

Force of Evil was the first film directed by Abraham Polonsky – and would be his last for more than 20 years, as a few years after its release, he was blacklisted by the Joseph McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee. John Garfield, who starred in the film, had a few more roles after it, before he himself was blacklisted. Unlike Polonsky, he didn’t live to work again – dying in 1952, a year after he was blacklisted. Watching Force of Evil, it isn’t hard to see why Polonksy and Garfield were suspected of being Communists – out of all the films I’ve seen from the 1940s, this is the one most sharply critical of Capitalism. Almost a quarter century before Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather would draw comparisons between gangsters and businessmen, Force of Evil did the same thing. And it contributed to ruining the careers of two very talented men.

In the film, Garfield stars as Joe Morse, a lawyer whose major client is Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), a gangster who runs the numbers racket in New York. The police and DA’s office is breathing down their neck about the numbers, but Joe sees a way that he can make it legit – a real lottery that is perfectly legal. He convinces Tucker to go along with his plan. On July 4th, they’ll rig the drawing so that the number 776 hits. This is the one day of the year that they can guarantee that people will place money on a specific number (1776 being the year American was founded). When the number hits, all the smaller banks who run their own numbers game will be bankrupted by having to pay out so much in one day – and they will come running to Tucker to bail them out. Tucker and Morse will decide who they want to support, and who they will let collapse. Thus consolidated, the numbers game can be legitimatized, and the police cannot touch them.

Things are never as simple as they seem however. Morse’s older brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) runs one of those smaller banks. Joe doesn’t want to see him go bankrupt, so he tries to convince Leo to sign on with Tucker. Leo wants no part of it however – and no part of Joe for that matter. Leo dreamed of being a lawyer as a kid, but when their parents died, he went to work to support Joe, and send him to law school. Having Leo’s dream within his grasp, Joe has thrown it all away to be just another gangster for Tucker – although one that hides behind his law degree.

Force of Evil is a movie about a corrupt system – one that cannot help but taint everyone who comes in contract with it. Joe is trying to manipulate the system for his own gain, whereas Leo is simply trying to make a living off of it, but both are dragged deeper and deeper into the corruption. Leo’s secretary, Doris (Beatrice Pearson) initially admires Leo for his honesty, but she finds herself drawn to Joe just the same. He can provide fast money and easy living – the American Dream – but of course their relationship is doomed from the start.

Watching the film, I could not help but think of the recent financial scandals that have rocked Wall Street, and brought the economy to the brink of collapse. Is there really any difference between what the Wall Street executives did, manipulating the system for their own personal gain, and what Joe is doing in this film? Leo tries to stay out of the muck, but ultimately he cannot. He’s as dirty as the rest of them.

Lest I have made Force of Evil sound like a pretentious diatribe against capitalism, I should also point out that the film is supremely entertaining – a perfect example of the film noir genre, stylishly directed by Polonsky and shot by George Barnes. In particular, the films last scene, where Joe walks down, further and further to the waterfront (representing just how low Joe has fallen) is a masterful example of filmmaking at its finest. John Garfield’s performance is one of his very best – he even handles the roles multiple speeches wonderfully well, and makes sure that they do not sound like sermons. Pearson is excellent as the young, innocent girl corrupted by the lure of fast cash. And Thomas Gomez is a tragic figure as poor Leo.

Polonsky continued to work in Hollywood under various pseudonyms during the period he was blacklisted – although what movies he had a hand in remains unknown. Although Force of Evil represents one of the great film noirs of all time, he was only able to direct two more films – the mostly forgotten Tell Them Where Willie Boy Is (1970) and Romance of a Horse Thief (1971). He continued to write after that – including the original script for Irwin Winkler’s Guilty by Suspicion (1991) about the Hollywood blacklist – but objected when Winkler turned Robert DeNiro’s character from a Communist into a Liberal. HUAC wasn’t wrong about Polonsky – he was a Communist, and remained one his whole life. But that doesn’t excuse their treatment of him. He was an extremely talented filmmaker, who had his career ruined because of his political beliefs. As for Garfield, there is no proof that he ever was a communist – he was liberal to be sure, but that doesn’t make him a Communist (well, to Fox News maybe). But again, his career was ruined by the blacklisting, just as he was starting to get some juicy leading roles. Many believe the stress caused by the whole ordeal is ultimately what led to his heart attack and death in 1952.

For both of these men, Force of Evil could just be what they are ultimately remembered for. It was the only time Polonsky got to make the film he wanted to, and it gave Garfield perhaps the best role of their career. It is one of the most important American films from the 1940s.

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