Tag Archives: film preservation

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!

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The tragedy of lost films (and what you can do)

This is kind of last minute, but I very quickly want to give as much support and gratitude as I can to the wonderful folks who are currently running the “For the Love of Film” blogathon, the Self-Styled Siren and Marilyn of Ferdy on Films. The blogathon is nearly over, and I’ve sadly been kept from posting anything by the stresses of 7th week, but I can’t overemphasize how noble and important of a project this is. The purpose of “For the Love of Film” is to raise money for the National Film Preservation Foundation, whose raison d’etre is pretty much right there in its name. (I’ve dreamed of volunteering for the NFPF for years, but Minneapolis isn’t exactly a Mecca of film preservation.)

Imagine that you’re Burgess Meredith in the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” You’re the last person on earth, and you’ve got all of mankind’s collected work at your fingertips. Let’s say your glasses didn’t break. But what if the library started on fire? Would you do whatever it took to get a fire extinguisher or a hose, anything, to quench the flames? OK, this may be a strained analogy, but my point is that film preservation is essential to preserving our collective identity.

Film is such a young art, but already it’s produced so many sublime and beautiful masterpieces, works which literally improve us as human beings and the world we live in. Yet tragically, this hasn’t always been acknowledged: during the days of the Hollywood studio system, for example, before the public even knew of such a thing as “art cinema,” filmmaking was regarded first and foremost as an industry. This is how Thomas Edison treated it, and this is how it was viewed by the men who controlled it over the following decades. At that historical moment, despite the fact that Hollywood was exporting countless great works of art, film just hadn’t acquired the necessary approval from the broader artistic and intellectual communities.

Granted, I’m oversimplifying a little, but I’m trying to hastily spell out some of the reasons why film preservation is so very fundamental. Because it was this dominant attitude toward film as nothing but a transient form of entertainment that helped lead to the ongoing crisis we face as cinephiles. Our cultural heritage is literally decomposing. Imagine (yes, more hypotheticals) if you learned that a vault somewhere in Vienna contained thousands of pages of sheet music, with a few lost Mozart symphonies in there somewhere, and the paper was slowly rotting away, so that much of the music was already unreadable. Would you be a little concerned? I can’t overstate the gravity of this situation.

Already, so much – far too much – has been lost. If you want to make me cry, force me to peruse a list of lost films; it’s like gazing over a memorial to lost lives, experiences, sacrifices. Just think about Theda Bara, the beguiling, vampy sex symbol of early silent cinema. Her very image is intriguing, she’s one of the first true movie stars, but out of her whole prolific career, only four feature films remain; barring an archival miracle, no one will ever see her legendary Cleopatra in its entirety. I want to see Cleopatra. I can’t, because it hasn’t been preserved. Donating to the NFPF at least ensures that future generations will be able to enjoy the films of other silent starlets.

I’ll mention a few other tragic losses, cautionary tales about the fragility of film: consider Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), an expansive masterpiece of intense psychological realism. Of course, we’ll never see the whole thing, because some janitor decided to throw away a huge amount of its running time. This is just a sample of how one person’s brief carelessness can harm all of humanity; the NFPF works to overcome the effects of individual carelessness. (Luckily, janitors have redeemed themselves, since legend says that one recovered Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc in a Norwegian insane asylum.)

Another classic example of negligence depriving us of great filmmaking is Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. A failure when first released, RKO’s apathy toward it eventually led to about an hour of footage being irretrievably lost. As it is, Ambersons feels so potent, so full of the same layered storytelling that defined Citizen Kane, with great performances from Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, and Agnes Moorhead – what could that extra hour have added? How would it have changed our perception of Welles’ talent?

(It’s worth noting that a couple months ago, I had a conversation with my advisor, a Cinema and Media Studies professor, in which he happened to mention, “I was in Madison recently and ran into David Bordwell, and we happened to talk about The Magnificent Ambersons…” to my quiet awe.)

It’s so frustrating; it’s as if James Joyce had, in his fit of rage, thrown the manuscript of Ulysses into the fireplace, and then Nora hadn’t rushed to salvage it. Except in this case, it’s all thanks to the studio’s short-sightedness and penny-pinching. This also counts as a great lesson for anyone in any period of history: don’t pretend to know what will or will not end up being historically important. Rash actions, based on hubris like that, has lost us so many would-be classics, ones that never lived to see the light of the present day.

I can’t talk about lost films without touching on the holy grail, perhaps the most desired and most sorely missed film out there, and one to which I feel a personal connection: Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927). How many times as a child was I entranced by photos of Lon Chaney, Sr. as the Man in the Beaver Hat; how many times did I contort my face in an attempt to mimic his? Sure, as with Greed, there’s a reconstruction by Rick Schmidlin (whose work I admire), but it’s just not the same. The reconstruction gives an outline of what London After Midnight may have been like. But I can never experience firsthand chills from seeing Chaney’s pseudo-vampire in motion, the essence of cinema (La Jetée notwithstanding).

We’re fighting a war. It’s a war against time, fire, mold, decay, and apathy. It’s a war against lack of funds and space. Think of these lost films as a few of the higher-profile casualties over the years, though rest assured, there are thousands and thousands more. If you want to learn more about some of the success stories of film preservation, and the endless tally of losses, look around at the lists on the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Film. You can find out all about the technical reasons that films decay (an area where I’m pretty lost myself), as well as great film preservationists, porn preservation, and so much more. These collected posts are an amazing accomplishment, providing glances into areas of film history that are usually off limits to all but the most dedicated researchers. To everyone involved: thank you!

(Also, DONATE to the NFPF!)

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