Force of Evil and the Love of Film (Noir)

Around this time last year, I participated in the “For the Love of Film” blogathon, which was devoted to one of my favorite causes—film preservation. It’s happening this year, but with a dark and wonderful twist: it’s centered on film noir, which is my bread and butter, my métier, my love. In other words: let’s raise some big money, folks. Let’s pretend we’re like Sterling Hayden in The Asphalt Jungle, and Cy Endfield’s forgotten noir The Sound of Fury (1950) is the Kentucky farm we’re trying to buy back. Or if that’s too confusing, maybe we could be Elisha Cook, Jr. in The Killing.

Or let me just put it straight: we need to raise money to preserve a great film. A great film about mob justice that stars Jeff Bridges’ father, Lloyd. See Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren, the blogathon’s co-hosts, for more information. In the meantime, you can do two things: 1) click on that Maltese falcon at the left to donate any amount of money (please, please donate!) and 2) let me tell you all about another great, underrated film noir, Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948).

Like The Sound of Fury, Force of Evil was made by a filmmaker on the cusp of being blacklisted, and Polonsky wouldn’t receive another film credit for twenty years. It’s a tragedy that such a promising career should be cut so short, yet it’s not surprising; Force of Evil is not just well-made, but also bleak, brave, and dangerous. It proves that Polonsky, as an artist, was unafraid to indict the greed and corruption he saw around him, and do it in the most caustic, unwholesome way imaginable. He was totally willing to “speak truth to power,” and in the process create one of the the blackest noirs. In Force of Evil, the saving graces of love, humor, and family are gone. All that’s left is the bad, and the worse.

At the center of all this is Joe Morse, the lawyer for a big-time numbers racketeer, played by the always-dynamite John Garfield. Like Polonsky, Garfield was just a few years away from the blacklist, not to mention his own death, and his performance bleeds desperation. His introductory voiceover is deceptively optimistic—”Tomorrow I make my first million dollars,” he claims—but that optimism, and any chance for the fulfillment of Joe’s American dream, is premised entirely on a series of cold-hearted deals he’s made with his boss, Tucker (Roy Roberts). Ironically, it’s Joe’s brief glimmers of humanity and altruism that destroy him and bring down his whole wicked world.

Joe, you see, is conflicted. His brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), a fatherly salt-of-the-earth type with heart trouble, runs a small numbers “bank” that Tucker plans to absorb into his combination on July 4, unless Joe intercedes. But when Joe stands up for him, Leo wants no part in it. So Joe has to force him in, straining their already troubled relationship, and accidentally driving his brother straight into an undignified grave. Gomez gives the performance of a lifetime as the sweaty, palpitating Leo, a man who only wants the best for his employees, and who sees his brother as a dirty gangster. Force of Evil is filled with hungry-eyed men who make the realtors of Glengarry Glen Ross look downright serene, and Leo is the hungriest, most panic-stricken of them all.

When Joe takes a romantic interest in Doris, Leo’s innocent surrogate daughter, Leo is understandably pissed. And he may be in the right. Force of Evil forces the viewer to ask the question: would you rather be Joe, the ambitious black sheep, who has sacrificed his scruples and his self-possession for that “first million dollars”? Or Leo, who’s bound to end up dead amidst the trash and seagulls, who may in fact be a small-time crook, but at least retains the vestiges of a tarnished soul? The film provides no easy way out, and no absolution through a cutesy Hollywood love story.

Even the “good” characters, like the mousy accountant/informant Bauer (Howland Chamberlain), have compromised themselves in the worst possible ways. Before he ends up as a bloodied corpse on the front page of a newspaper, Bauer is castigated by Leo as a “dumb, rotten dog” who should’ve left everything alone. In Force of Evil, everyone is complicit in Tucker’s overarching corruption, and redemption is always just out of reach. Tucker’s wife, played by femme fatale extraordinaire Marie Windsor, wears that corruption like a perfume, and manages to sound seductive even as she plants seeds of paranoia and betrayal in Joe’s brain.

And, as you might expect, Force of Evil ends in a big, loud mess as the crooks double-cross one another, leaving Joe with nothing but rubble and guilt. As this synopsis might suggest, the film is relentlessly downbeat; it’s all but nihilistic in its chilling vision of American life. For Polonsky, the real crimes aren’t just muggings and murders, but all the backroom arrangements made by amoral bureaucrats with more concern for statistics and legal loopholes than all the lives they’re ruining. Between its unflinching darkness and beautiful distillation of noir style, Force of Evil is a confirmed masterpiece, which I see as a likely influence on On the Waterfront (directed by Polonsky’s nemesis, Elia Kazan) and The Godfather, especially considering Force of Evil‘s bloody diner scene.

As such, it’s one more important piece of the film noir heritage that Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme, Greg Ferrara, and all the rest of the intrepid blogathoners are fighting to save. So please, help the Film Noir Foundation makes its first million dollars. Give generously to save the movies that you and I love. For the love of film (noir), click the button below and donate!

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Force of Evil and the Love of Film (Noir)

  1. Excellent. “Force of Evil” never fails to take one’s breath away, even after all these years. The death of the bookkeeper is one of the most despairing in all of cinema. And the relationshipo between the brothers is deeply moving and incredibly complex. This is one of Marty Scorsese’s favorite movies not just for its own obvious virtues but because of the relationship between the brothers — which mirrors his relationship with his own brother.

  2. Pingback: Ferdy on Films

  3. Great stuff, Andreas. This is one of my favorites too. You can see that Polonsky was destined for the blacklist: the film seethes with contempt for the dirty business of American capitalism and greed, and its take on crime is not the usual few-bad-apples gangsterism of bad guys versus good guys, but a portrait of a top-to-bottom corrupt system in which crime *is* big business. There’s no way out, no easy answer, no relief. It’s utterly nihilistic and bleak, and a really frightening movie because of it.

  4. @David: I read that fact about Scorsese while researching Force of Evil, and it’s especially interesting when you can consider something like the brothers’ dysfunctional relationship in Raging Bull, which also borrows heavily from the Polonsky-penned Body and Soul. Scorsese knows how to pick his influences! (I really think he’s the high-profile cinephile director with probably the best taste.)

    @Ed: That’s totally true – even if Polonsky hadn’t been active in left-wing circles, this movie is still symptomatic of a filmmaker trying to survive in a Hollywood on the verge of HUAC. The movie isn’t easy to take, but it’s harsh and honest. You can really taste Polonsky’s anger and bitterness, even in something as simple as making the selfish, self-deceiving Joe his protagonist.

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