Director: Abraham Polonsky
Producer: Bob Roberts
Screenwriter: Ira Wolfert and Abraham Polonsky
Cinematographer: George Barnes
Music: David Raksin
Studio: Enterprise and MGM 1948
Main Acting: John Garfield and Thomas Gomez
There is much more to Force Of Evil than what appears on the surface. As I once wrote on another blog:
“The scene where John Garfield (playing lawyer Joe Morse) descends into an allegorical hell to discover his brother’s body on the rocks was very powerful. It is clearly an attack on capitalism and greed. Polonsky shows how corruption can spread and hurt multiple people like a disease. The innocent victims are Leo’s employees, who are linked and compared to regular American workers being cast aside and exploited. He is being very subversive by comparing capitalism to gambling or the numbers racket. The director shows his contempt for America’s financial system by linking it to a shadowy illegal operation. In some ways, this film is like a harbinger to our current economic crisis where greed has dire consequences for society and the general population.”
While I could go on and on about the social message fused within the script and throughout this late 40s film noir, I find myself uninterested in discussing this aspect of the picture. My primary love and enjoyment of film noir has little to do with politics or social causes and more with investigating the struggle of the individual to battle personal demons and existential feelings. My favorite noirs are mostly about protagonists fighting the inevitable cruel hand of fate or trying to overcome bad choices they have foisted upon themselves. Force Of Evil is primarily concerned with economic realities and institutional injustices, but I primarily watch it (these days at least) for the way that Joe Morse fits in with the typical noir anti-hero. He is generally a good guy who lets materialism guide his actions until certain tragedies befall him.
Joe Morse is a hotshot lawyer who has fallen in with a powerful gangster, Tucker (played by Roy Roberts). Together, they conspire to consolidate all the numbers rackets being operated in New York City. By rigging the numerical combination that will hit on July 4th (the popular 776), they can then swoop in and overtake the smaller businesses that will be decimated by the overwhelming loss of capital this miracle outcome will produce. The only hitch for Joe is that his brother happens to run one of these small-time operations and regardless of his desire for upward mobility, he still feels a sense of love and loyalty toward his sibling. Leo Morse (played wonderfully by Thomas Gomez) helped get Joe through school and sacrificed for the betterment of his brother. Joe, like most noir protagonists, is conflicted between achieving a level of success and wondering what his actions will eventually cost him. Force Of Evil is adamant about showing realism and truth. No bad luck prevents Joe from achieving his desired happiness. The narrative circumstances that afflict him are purely based on his personal choices. We sympathize with Garfield’s character because even if he is a selfish crook who is willing to cheat the masses, there is still a distinct goodness in him to help the one person he cares about. The chance for redemption is always a possibility.
Garfield’s Joe Morse must eventually pay for his transgressions. The biblical-infused Force Of Evil makes sure of that. The penalty is one that is somewhat different than most inhabitants of the genre face. Near the end of the picture, New York becomes an empty shell for Morse. The financial district is displayed as a hallow ghost town where little life moves within it. By the 75th-minute mark, we all journey with our suffering guide as he recounts, “I was feeling very bad there. Because I went down there. I just kept going down and down. It was like going down to the bottom of the world.” Where he is going reflects the epitomized conclusion of his greedy actions. The corpse of his brother has been thrown away on the rocks. Throughout the film, Joe Morse tried to accomplish two things…and neither was achieved.
Polonsky was blacklisted after this movie and only directed two more features, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here and Romance Of A Horse Thief, both which were made in the early 70s after his moviemaking ban was rescinded. A real tragedy for film noir fans as the artist would of most likely continued making quality pictures in the genre. The destruction of his career means we will never really know how great of a director he might have been. I always equate him with Charles Laughton who also only directed one film noir (Laughton’s scarcity in filmmaking was more due to financial and box office disappointment) and we can never know what kind of filmography these two talented men would have forged. Still, we should at least be grateful that Abraham Polonsky was able to make at least one absolute masterpiece. That film is called Force Of Evil and maybe that is more than enough.
I would also like to point out the incredible contributions of David Raskin and George Barnes. The cinematography throughout Force Of Evil is peppered with breathtaking location photography and tight claustrophobic scenes of entrapment. The music by Raskin conveys the mood perfectly and really hits a high point in the end when it gives a hint of hopefulness amidst images of bleakness.