Force of Evil (1948)

Director:

Abraham Polonsky

Cinematography by

George Barnes

Force of Evil is a 1948 American crime film noir directed by Abraham Polonsky who had already achieved a name for himself as a scriptwriter, most notably for the gritty boxing film Body and Soul (1947). Like Body and Soul, the film starred John Garfield. The film was adapted by Abraham Polonsky and Ira Wolfert from Wolfert’s novel Tucker’s People. The film marked the first on screen acting role of Beau Bridges.

In 1994, Force of Evil was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

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Critical response

When the film was released, the staff at Variety magazine gave the film a mixed review:

Force of Evil fails to develop the excitement hinted at in the title. Makers apparently couldn’t decide on the best way to present an exposé of the numbers racket, winding up with neither fish nor fowl as far as hard-hitting racketeer meller is concerned. A poetic, almost allegorical, interpretation keeps intruding on the tougher elements of the plot. This factor adds no distinction and only makes the going tougher…Garfield, as to be expected, comes through with a performance that gets everything out of the material furnished…On the technical side, the production fares better than story-wise. The physical mounting is expertly valued; the New York locale shots give authenticity; and lensing by George Barnes, while a bit on the arty side, displays skilled craftsmanship.

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Bosley Crowther, the film critic for The New York Times, liked the film, and wrote, “But for all its unpleasant nature, it must be said that this film is a dynamic crime-and-punishment drama, brilliantly and broadly realized. Out of material and ideas that have been worked over time after time, so that they’ve long since become stale and hackneyed, it gathers suspense and dread, a genuine feeling of the bleakness of crime and a terrible sense of doom. And it catches in eloquent tatters of on-the-wing dialogue moving intimations of the pathos of hopeful lives gone wrong.”

Over the years, Force of Evil has been recognized as a masterpiece of the film noir genre, powerful in its poetic images and language, by film critics and historians such as William S. Pechter and Andrew Dickos. Its influence has been acknowledged many times by Martin Scorsese in the making of his crime dramas.

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A movie that portrays the tragedy of “victimless” crime.

4 March 2005 | by denscul (virginia) – See all my reviews

This movie is about the “numbers” racket that existed at the time the movie was made. Younger viewers, familiar with state lotteries may not appreciate the pervasive influence that was required to operate a nickel and dime play of individuals, that translated into millions that went to corrupt local politicians, judges, and police. One reviewer said the crime was petty which is true; but that makes the cost to the characters involved so tragic and cinematcally vivid. John Garfield acting is at its best as he portrays a person trying to balance ambition, romance and family loyalty. The minor characters are all nice people who found themselves caught in a dirty business that seemed harmless to everyone who played the numbers. This movie shows the real cost in personal terms. The writing, acting and direction of this movie excels any crime movie of this generation.

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Classic film noir which finishes too soon

Author: Geofbob from London, England
30 December 2001

This is a gripping film noir, dark and despairing in mood, co-written and directed by Abraham Polonsky, shortly before he was blacklisted in Hollywood for his left-wing views. Those views are perhaps implied in the plot, which is about the illegal numbers game, and the attempt of a big operator to gain a monopoly of the racket in New York. The film shows how everybody from the individual punter putting a few cents on a number to the gangsters making a fortune out of the operation is soiled by the racket. For Polonsky, the numbers game may have symbolised capitalism as a whole, with both bosses and workers being corrupted by the system. However, the details of the plot are less important than the mood, characterisations and visual aspects of the movie.

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John Garfield is brilliant as the charming, amoral lawyer Joe Morse, a Mr Fixit for racket-boss Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). Thomas Gomez plays Joe’s sick, world-weary brother Leo, who also runs an illegal numbers game, but independently of the mob, in an honorable and decent fashion. Some of the best scenes in the film show Joe trying, as he sees it, to help Leo by bringing him into Tucker’s operation, while Leo resists and berates Joe for using his ability and education in such an ignoble cause. Much of this intense dialogue is reminiscent of that in plays by Clifford Odets or Arthur Miller.

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Also compelling, but with a lighter feel, are scenes between Joe and Doris (Beatrice Pearson) a quiet but assured young woman who works for Leo. Joe adopts slick patter, and runs himself down, in an attempt to gain her sympathy. Also in the movie, but with a disappointingly small part, is Marie Windsor, as Edna, Tucker’s wife; in a longer, more commercial, film, her role of femme fatale would almost certainly have been expanded.

But it is the sets, location work, cinematography and editing which lift the film above the average. Practically every scene and shot has visual interest, and it is definitely one film you want to go on longer than its allotted 80 minutes.

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Great mix of mobsters and sibling rivalry in overlooked gem…

9/10
Author: Donald J. Lamb from Philadelphia, PA
14 March 1999

Martin Scorsese has hailed this film as one of the forgotten masterpieces of the film-noir genre. He took it a step further by resurrecting the film from the vaults and teaching it at NYU in the late 60’s. He said it was the first film he ever saw that related “to a world he knew and saw.” Indeed, the film’s realism and location shooting is great to see, especially Wall Street circa 1948. Those scrapers have stood for a long time. This is not traditional noir, however. It is an excellent study of a personal battle between two brothers. Joe (John Garfield) is a rich, corrupt mob lawyer, not unlike Duvall in the Godfather flicks. His older brother Leo (A great actor named Thomas Gomez) is a banker trying to live on the “up and up”.

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The relationship is a tragic one. Thomas Gomez must be one of the most underrated actors of his day. He steals every scene he’s in with the quick-talking Garfield, who was so good in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. This may be familiar to fans of RAGING BULL, where both sets of brothers in two very different films love each other, but have a difficult time displaying affection.

Two fabulous scenes stand out and would be impossible if shot in color. The first occurs when Garfield stumbles upon a darkened office with his door slightly ajar. The light from his office cuts through the middle of the screen, allowing Garfield to snoop. Another is the shootout at the film’s climax, where all of the three shooters are lying in the shadows, creating suspense based on what we cannot see. It is all done in a very impressionistic way, a superb use of lighting and shadow. This is black and white at its best. Pure and evil. A truly great film. I would stay focused on the scenes between Gomez and Garfield. This sad brotherhood plays incredibly against a brilliant backdrop of crime and double-crossing.

FORCE OF EVIL is another reminder of how good Hollywood films of the 1940’s were. Without them, we probably would not have the classics of the past 25 years.

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Abraham Polonsky’s masterpiece

9/10
Author: krorie from Van Buren, Arkansas
15 January 2006

Oft times an author’s first major work is his/her best work. This is true for director Abraham Polonsky. Had Polonsky not been blacklisted by the Hollywood and Congressional bigots who knows what he might have done. Certainly his earlier script for “Body and Soul” is one of the best in movie history. Since he was later blacklisted by the power hungry hooligans of the nation, it is easy to read too much Marxism and Communist psycho-babble into “Force of Evil.” In pointing out that there is not much difference between underworld numbers banking and banking in the world of acceptable business, Polonsky is utilizing social and political criticism, not of necessity a Marxist slant. Marxism is an entire Utopian recreation of the economic world order, not artistic expression and intellectual conceptualization as presented by Polonsky in “Force of Evil.” The director/writer is also concerned with moral bankruptcy in justifying evil as a means of rationalizing big profits from illegal activities.

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There is a spin off story concerning two brothers, one of whom has warped scruples who helped his younger brother become a successful if now corrupt corporate lawyer with no scruples until tempered by the seemingly innocent babe in the woods Doris Lowry (Beatrice Pearson) who in reality has questionable morals herself yet clothed in hypocrisy. Both Doris and Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez)are pursued by their own demons. The viewer has to determine where the moral depravity or evil actually lies and with whom. The title “Force of Evil” could just as well be “THE Force of Evil,” since evil tends to be almost omnipotent that every mortal is tempted and it takes very strong souls indeed to resist and remain true to heart. It’s much easier to make a deal with the devil in the fashion of Faust and to take the wrong highway at the crossroads.

The brilliant John Garfield who left this world much too soon never gave a poor performance. Only Garfield could have done justice to the complicated complex character of Joe Morse. Yet Thomas Gomez stays up with Garfield all the way and nearly steals the show as Joe’s impenetrable sibling whose persona appears one-dimensional on the surface until one begins to scratch away the enamel.

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A delectable bonus for the viewer is the magnetic New York City photography that takes on the appearance of Edward Hopper paintings, as Polonsky intended. All the exterior shots are to be savored but one that sticks in the mind long after the film ends is near the final credits when Joe seeks where his brother Leo’s body has been dumped. The narration by Joe tells it all as he runs in a desperate gait downward toward the murky water, with Doris trying to keep up but mainly just watching.

One of the neglected movie gems of the 1940’s, not to be missed.

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