FORCE OF EVIL —–“It seemed a shame for so much good money to go to waste… in other people’s pockets.”
New York City, 1948. Casually crooked lawyer ‘Joe Morse’ (John Garfield) works for pretend-civilized gangster ‘Ben Tucker’ (Roy Roberts), who intends to use a bait & switch coup on the 4th of July to corral all the small-time numbers rackets–“banks”—into one overarching ‘legit’ “corporation” (italics because the dialogue pointedly makes that designation, underlined because it’s crucial both to the thrust of the script and the bleak reality we toil under—enjoying your servitude? You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, suckers…). Frustrating the shrewd, determinedly amoral Joe (his redeeming qualities, if he has them, won’t rise until there’s no way out) are two hurdles to knock over. First, his older brother, Leo’ (Thomas Gomez), a ‘honest’ dime-store bookie with a bad heart and some scruples. Second, Leo’s young, charming, honest-enough (she’s working for a bookie) secretary ‘Doris’ (Beatrice Pearson), who Joe takes an immediate shine to (ditto’d). Since EVERYONE is crooked, per movie logic, noir lore, and revolutionary calling, there’s only one way out—involving gunfire. Bring it.
“I didn’t have enough strength to resist corruption, but I was strong enough to fight for a piece of it.”
Scripted & directed by Marxist pot-stirrer Abraham Polonsky, who, the year before, had written Garfield’s Oscar-nominated Body And Soul. The earlier film jabbed at the destructive allure of money through the easy-target prism of the boxing world, whereas this script, under it’s overheated melodrama punching and Cain & Abel ethical allegory feints, used the jacketing of a crime story (with noir attributes for effect) to subversively gut-punch Capitalism’s essential, phony, costly, finally deadly dog-eat-dog fool’s parade. Reviews were good, box-office was okay ($2,500,000, just 125th place for the year), but the fallout for director/writer and star was, if not evil, a handmaiden to it. *
“You’re not strong or weak enough.”
Fans of John Garfield (sorry, never been able to warm to the guy) will find much to like, and 18-year-old hopeful Beatrice Pearson is fetching and effective. In a less-sweet way, so is ‘bad-girl’ Marie Windsor, playing crime boss Roberts come-and-get-it wife, toying “cat’s away” style with Garfield. The unsung yet very familiar Roy Roberts, excellent as ever, makes a good slimy crook. Thomas Gomez had just been Oscar-nominated as a Supporting Actor (1947s Ride The Pink Horse) and he puts his customary energy into self-dooming Leo, though both his performance and Garfield’s are tangled up in having to bark melodramatic or pseudo-lofty dialogue at each other to the point of hysteria. My chief complaint isn’t the dialogue, which is really smart, but Polonsky’s apparent directive to have everyone speed it up so absurdly fast that good lines ring false, with reversals of attitude happening in the time it takes a sentence to start and finish. The romantic angle between the charmless, continually unlikeable Garfield character and the kindly, guileless girl, so well played by Pearson, is a big pill to swallow. The sets are chintzy (stagy looking), but the outdoor shots are quite effective, particularly at the finale, and the dramatic black & white cinematography from George Barnes is frequently striking. Almost every other person who blurbs about this movie raves over it like it was the frickin’ Constitution, so maybe in their collective p.c. wrath they can blacklist me for not loving it sufficiently. TFB. Might as well be on one more watch-list.
With Howland Chamberlain, Paul Fix, Barry Kelley, Paul McVey. Ladder-climbing Robert Aldrich was the Assistant Director. Music score is by David Raksin. 79 minutes.
* Say you’re a person who loves movies and likes to talk (write) about them. Maybe you have a little Hollyhistory knowledge, a tad of insider scoop and can usually appreciate where a film fits into The Great Scheme, according to success or lack of it, based on box-office, awards, peer recognition, and of course, the opines of self-appointed EXPERTS who magically know Everything about Everything (we realize only One man can claim that throne, and he has orange hair). What then, are you (as in me) supposed to do when you watch something famous and lauded, and instead of having it change your life it merely strikes you as “Good”? Hara-kiri, apparently, after you self-sabotage by looking through reviews that run the gamut from A to A+ and on to “Tell God to Wait, I’m watching Force of Evil”. Stymied, for the kazumpteenth time about the limits of your reasoning, so shamed by the musings of Smart Foke that you are ready to hurl your lack of basic human decency out the window along with your outdated body, you are frozen with How Do I Say This and Where Do I Start? A Shakespeare-same boat-Situation.
Every other reviewer on Planet Earth will tell you that Force Of Evil is nothing less than staggering. Some of them know what they’re talking about. Too many don’t. Yes, it’s a good movie. You will still have to get up next morning.
Polonsky’s co-scenarist was Ira Wolfert; they based their work off Wolfert’s 1943 novel “Tucker’s People”. Polonsky wrote one more film–1951s I Can Get It For You Wholesale (a delicious review over at Self-Styled Siren http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/2012/03/i-can-get-it-for-you-wholesale-1951.html) before being blacklisted that year. Garfield starred in four more pictures, before dying in 1952 at 39. Effectively blacklisted at the time, he was “cleared” after his death. Thanks, Congressman. Your check is in the
Eye-catching and affecting stage actress Beatrice Pearson (1920-1986) only did one more film, 1949s overlooked Lost Boundaries, dealing with “passing for white”, interracial marriage and obvious prejudice. Was that for-the-time-provocative film why she wasn’t offered any more? https://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s3111lost.html
Other crime dramas from 1948: Key Largo, Call Northside 777, Road House, The Naked City, The Street With No Name, I Walk Alone, Kiss The Blood Off My Hands, Cry Of The City.