‘Force of Evil’ is just as smartly told as it is crafted

121025120839548556Force of Evil

Written by Abraham Polonsky and Ira Wolfert

Directed by Abraham Polonsky

U.S.A., 1948

Joe Morse (John Garfield) finds himself in a professionally precarious, if certainly lucrative, position. As one of New York’s top lawyers, he represents Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), the city’s top dog in the racket numbers game. His plush office and impressive wealth are due to impressive commissions earned via Tucker, the latter whom, through Joe’s tireless efforts, has established himself as legitimately as possible. One of the smaller ‘banks’ that is soon to come under Tucker’s reign following the 4th of July rigged horse race is that belonging to Joe’s estranged brother, Leo (Thomas Gomez). The big race passes, leaving Manhattan’s smaller rackets broke, consequently forcing them to comply and join Tucker. Joe strives to sweeten the deal as much as possible for Leo, but differences of opinion persist as far as what is considered honest and dishonest business practices. When one of Leo’s employees, Freddie Bauer (Howland Chamberlain) whistle blows to the police, Joe and Leo soon find themselves facing greater odds than either could ever have foreseen.

John Garfield was one of the great actors of his time. Sporting similar physical attributes as Charles Bronson, who would earn fame and fortune a couple decades later by plying in beloved adventure films followed by a string of lower grade action flicks, Garfield is clearly the less remembered of the two. This is unfortunate, for a cursory glance at the actor’s resume suggests a enviably varied career littered with starring and supporting roles that most men in Hollywood would envy. Gentlemen’s Agreement, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body and Soul, Garfield never backed down from a difficult role and virtually always went into a project, well, body and soul. There is always an intense, brutal honesty communicated in his performances. He quite obviously puts in a world of effort into making his characters believable, but rather than the end result feeling forced, there is a sublimely genuine quality to said effort. Force of Evil sees him play what is arguably his most morally ambiguous lead role in Joe Morse. People admire and respect him just as others are torn with respect to the clients he represents, in particular Ben Tucker, who not so long ago would have be considered, legally, a criminal. Joe is evidently proficient in his chosen profession, taking great pleaser in reaping the benefits of his powerful position. For all his success, his still has a telephone stashed away in a lower drawer of his desk to anticipate calls that, shall we say, do need to be known about by just anybody.

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Force of Evil’s finest thematic punch line, among several tremendous qualities, is its exploration of evil. It is astute in offering a canvas of opinions shared organically via a plethora of characters involved in some fashion or another in the world of betting and racketeering. Joe himself, in an introductory voice over narration, laments the fact that so much money is wasted away through the silly numbers games, down on their luck denizens tossing away important sums because of superstitions, falsely placed hope, greed and other intangible, incalculable, immeasurable facts of stupid human behavior. None of changes the fact that Joe is more than happy to earn his bread and butter by making the business as legit as possible. Naturally, the upcoming 4th of July horse race bet, a day on which legion of people bet on 776 and typically lose, makes Joe queasy. This year the race is fixed because 776 will actually win, thus putting all smaller betting rings out of business, including Leo’s. The issue being that Leo and Joe have very different opinions on what is right and what is wrong, yet neither is entirely right or wrong in their strongly worded arguments. Joe’s desperation to pull Leo out of a rut is unquestionably commendable, a demonstration of pure brotherly love. On the flip side, Leo’s acquiescence would mean operating under the auspices of Ben Tucker, a man no one in their right mind would actually choose to be buddies with. Leo, on the other hand, precisely because he refuses to deal with gangsters, claims to running an honest business. True enough, the lack of interference from any known thugs, killers or crooks might make his operation appear somewhat better, but facts are facts. He is still taking money from people struggling to make ends meet, placing lost bets with money that should be spent more intelligently.

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The inclusion of Doris (Beatrice Pearson), Leo’s secretary of sorts, into the picture paints Joe’s position all the more starkly. While it can be argued that her character is a bit bland, her role serves to argument the dichotomy between a lost soul such as Joe’s and another, like Dorris, that has yet to be corrupted. Director Abraham Polonsky is smart enough to circumvent the stereotypical interpretation of a young and impressionable female lead, preferring to make Dorris a strong headed and morally sound individual, at least more morally sound than most of the other characters in the film. Her love affair with Joe is not entirely believable, but the fact they each feel an attraction towards the other causes a clash of philosophies that highlights some of the film’s stronger themes.

Practically the entire picture is awash in this very miasma of morality tilting towards one side of the pendulum and then the other, never quite committing to either. It is as good a depiction of Man’s infuriating inability to see the light and sometimes outright refusal to walk into it, regardless of the fact that it means getting sucked further into the quicksand that is doing business with nasty people. One need only consider Leo’s employees, disappointed, even a little embittered at the prospect of having to answer henceforth to Ben Tucker. His ties to the criminal world disgust them, yet they themselves earn a living in morally questionable business. Of all the men and woman employed under Leo, the most striking is Eddie Bauer, played with sensational nervousness as Howland Chamberlain. Caught in a moral quandary the likes of which he has never witnessed, he continuously calls in the police to raid Leo’s business in the aftermath of Ben Tucker’s takeover, positioning himself against Leo under the latter’s very nose. Making matters worse is the arrival of Wally (Stanley Prager), a representative of Bill Ficco (Paul Fix) a rival to Tucker, who coaxes Eddie to stir up more trouble still.

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Even beyond the story and terrific acting on display, Force of Evil is a lovingly crafted movie by director Abraham Polonsky, cinematographer George Barnes and editor Art Seid. There are a number of shots that strive for an artistry rarely witnessed in mainstream cinema. Better still, said shots and edits are not just for show. Each consistently sets a tone and has something to say about the story on hand. Joe walking alone in Wall Street in the early mornings of the hours as he’s learned that his career is over and his life may soon be too, his discovery of someone lurking in his office the previous night in a sublime play of light and shadow, furiously detailed editing whenever the police raid Leo’s establishment, unbelievably deep focus making foregrounds and backgrounds razor sharp as characters remain entrenched in their positions amidst heated conversations, Force of Evil both looks spectacular and utilizes its visual cues to smartly, evocatively emphasize its most salient beats.

The film is smartly written, smartly acted, smartly directed and smartly put together in the editing bay. Made by people with a love for film and its capacity to ask difficult questions and express important ideas, all through the art form’s remarkably malleable visual possibilities. The Force of Evil is a different film experience from most noirs because it so obviously wants to accomplish more than just tell a tale of stubborn crooks.

-Edgar Chaput

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