Force of Evil is the work of Abraham Polonsky, a writer and director whose career was aborted by the HUAC witch hunt. His big works are this movie and Body and Soul, both starring Warner's discovery John Garfield. He would eventually pay an even bigger price for making movies with a social conscience.
Taut and polished, this powerful film noir stylizes its dialogue to David Mamet extremes, creating a world where characters wear their morals and motivations on their sleeves and yet retain a measure of realism. Anti-racketeering is only the stepping-off place for Polonsky and writer Ira Wolfert, who identify the new corporate organized crime as an evolutionary step for big business. Behind the thriller facade are subversive intellectual ideas, the healthy kind that ask us to question how the world really works.
Force of Evil is a progressive gangster film that goes below the surface of the genre. I Walk Alone was about gangland becoming respectable by aping legit business, but that show limited its anxiety to the concern for what will become of its criminal hero. Polonsky instead indicts society at large, almost as would a "social issue" movie. He shows the world of crime operating within normal urban life and inextricable from it. The employees of Leo Morse's numbers counting house are ordinary people making a living, and poor struggling businessman Leo is not a criminal fat cat. Everyone is in on the illegal numbers game, which compromises the moral fabric of the community. 1
Our hero Joe Morse is a smart guy who goes for the cash and figures the details can be worked out later. He wants to legalize the numbers racket more to assuage his own conscience, but he feels unclean when he makes contact with his brother. Defending the crooked status quo to his independent-minded brother and disillusioned new girlfriend Doris only puts his cynicism in relief. Joe knows the push for legitimacy is a farce; Tucker's combine is engineering a hostile takeover of policy throughout the city and doesn't care who gets hurt so long as business plans aren't affected.
Joe can't tell his brother about the big fix, and can't persuade him to run for cover to dodge financial ruin. Leo abandoned his own education to send younger brother Joe to college; Joe became a glitzy lawyer while Leo remained to struggle in the trenches. Thus Force of Evil is like an inverse It's a Wonderful Life. Having friends, remaining virtuous (in Leo's case, staying loyal to one's neighborhood people) and keeping independent from corrupting power systems (Potter's banks, Tucker's racketeers) have completely different consequences in the two movies. George Bailey is a hero, whereas Leo becomes a martyr, a pitiful victim.
Critics have always flipped over Force of Evil's flowery language. Leo's "No, no, NO!" tirade is as stylized as anything in David Mamet's works, and John Garfield's tentative verbal jousting with Beatrice Pearson almost approaches poetry. Their taxicab scene is often compared favorably with the heavy dramatics of On the Waterfront, and it concludes with a fade-out that speaks a different kind of moral doom. Symbolically speaking, Garfield's Joe Morse is less of a proletarian hero than the boxer in Body and Soul, but only a few scenes approach that film's instant visual message-making. Frustrated by her ethical objections, Joe Morse hefts Doris up on mantel in an empty room, visually saying "Do you want to get into the swim of life with me, or stay up on the shelf?" The trapping of Leo in a bar uses somber classical music (in a bar?) to counterpoint some extremely shocking violence, including perhaps the movies' best use of a gun pointed at a subjective camera. And the symbolism is really thick in the oft-criticized ending: Joe descends the countless steps down to the river (styx) to recover a body, while the narration promises that he'll climb up again as a warrior against racketeers everywhere. As it's the fourth of July, the inference is that all America needs to be reclaimed from the corrupting forces of Evil.
After eighty minutes of showing us that this rottenness can't be defeated, the final words of Force of Evil aren't very hopeful. Unlike a socially-conscious Issue movie, the unrelenting noir atmosphere screams five parts Futility to every mumble of Hope, making Force of Evil much more of a downer than Body and Soul. In practical terms, Joe is himself too tarnished with corruption to fight back against the rackets. The logic of the movie speaks a doom that the idealistic ending can't overcome.
The witch hunt committees used the power of their office to slur and ruin people by innuendo; they never directly investigated movies made by blacklisted talent. If one wants to get technical, filmmakers like Polonsky, Dassin, Berry, Endfield and Losey did indeed make entertainment critical of American life and the capitalistic system. While Hollywood reinforced "safe" points of view on every issue, films like Brute Force, He Ran All the Way, Try and Get Me! and The Prowler expressed personal political philosophies that questioned the status quo. In these movies big business and an uncaring society "forced" people to become criminals. Institutions like the police and politics were assumed to be uncaring at best, and at worst corrupt and malign. The world was guilty and dirty, and complacent hicks like George Bailey were sentimental fools. The films weren't anti-American at all, they simply acknowledged imperfections in the veneer that Hollywood plastered over with platitudes and "Capracorn."
In Body and Soul Polonsky directly called the profit motive a license to exploit the weak, and it's true that John Garfield's socially conscious rebel boxer is a notably unrealistic spokesman for noble causes. When threatened by racketeers, he answers in true Spartacus form: "What ya gonna do, kill me? Everybody dies." Those were prophetic words for Garfield, who would be hounded into ill health and an early death in just a handful of years.
Force of Evil's powerful performances sell Abraham Polonsky's earnest civics lesson with perfect pitch. It's probably the career height for both Garfield and Thomas Gomez, and the only chance to see the wonderful Beatrice Pearson, a stage actress who made only two movies. She's delightfully vulnerable, and conflicted in her own way - she keeps Joe Morse at bay with talk of morality, while obviously hoping he'll sweep her off her feet. Marie Windsor (The Killing, The Narrow Margin) is in as the equally shady wife of racketeer Tucker. She bats her enormous eyes at the hero in an attempt to seduce him, but to no avail. Her small son is said to be played by Beau Bridges, but I think he must have been cut out of the film. Roy Roberts is convincing as the new kind of dull racketeer who stays calm and maintains that all he wants is good business. Howland Chamberlain, Barry Kelley and Stanley Praeger hover around the periphery as weak or venal pawns in the film's tawdry underside.
Lion's Gate's Force of Evil is a good, clean version of this great noir classic, which is good news in a climate where public domain films can only be seen in awful copies. The picture is reasonably sharp and detailed, and the texture of the B&W cinematography is good. The audio track features David Raksin's sharp "city" themes, and is clear enough to let us hear the subtle click of Joe Morse's phone being tapped - perhaps the first time this paranoid detail occurred in a movie. The program proper begins with an Artisan logo, but only Lion's Gate and Republic's logos appear on the box. The box text is quick to mention Force of Evil low number on the National Film Registry as well as Martin Scorsese's glowing recommendation. A confusing diagram tells us that the film has been reformatted from its original version, which is not true.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Force of Evil rates:
1. As explained in the
voiceover narration, "policy" or the numbers racket, is an illegal lottery supported by the public,
mainly ordinary citizens who bet habitually despite the long odds of winning. As a form of corruption,
it generates money that makes racketeers rich and gives them the resources to suborn politicians
and police, and hire lawyers to maintain a aura of legality among the leaders.