John Garfield has always been one of my favorite actors probably ranking in my top ten if I were to create such a list. He was always at his best when he played a guy from “the wrong side of the tracks”, scrappy, always behind the eight ball like say, Joe Bell in “Dust Be My Destiny” or Frank Chambers in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” In a film such as “East of the River” he manages to rise above the mediocre material making the film more interesting than it has a right to be. When Garfield’s contract with Warner Brothers eventually ended he formed his own production company, Enterprise Productions, his first film for his new company was “Body and Soul” directed by Robert Rossen with a screenplay by Abraham Polonsky.
Fresh from his success of “Body and Soul”, Garfield selected the 39 year old screenwriter Polonsky, as the director of his next production to be called, “Force of Evil” based on Ira Wolfet’s novel ,”Tucker’s People.” The film was released on Christmas day in 1948 and died a quick death at the box office, practically forgotten until the 1960’s when Garfield’s work and film noir began to be reexamined. For Polonsky, once the filming was completed, it would begin a long rough period in his life. Soon after the film opened he was called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and found himself blacklisted by the film industry. Polonsky spent the next twenty years writing novels and a few screenplays under assumed names or by using a “Front.” In 1968, he finally received screen credit under his own name for writing “Madigan” and 21 years after making his film directing debut he followed up with his second film, “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here” a film that is similar in themes when compared to his first effort.
“Force of Evil” is a story of opposites, in this case two brothers; Joe Morse (Garfield) is an ambitious educated, well paid Wall Street lawyer working for numbers racket king Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). Older brother Leo, who sacrificed his own education to get Joe through law school, runs his own small time numbers bank, servicing small honest working people. When Tucker decides to merge all the small time operations into a syndicate under his control, he rigs the July 4th numbers when a large number of superstitious gamblers pick 776 causing many of the small time bookies to go broke having to borrow money from Tucker to pay off their clientele, thus forcing them to join his syndicate. Joe forces his reluctant brother Leo to join the group which eventually leads to the destruction of just about everyone.
Watching the film I noticed a series of multifaceted relationships beginning with Joe, the financially well off big shot brother versus Leo’s small time operation. Tucker’s criminal operation is set against the never seen but always mentioned Special Prosecutor Hall, and the two women in the film, the young innocent, at least at the beginning, Doris (Beatrice Pearson) next to the overtly unscrupulous Edna Tucker (Marie Windsor). These opposite yet parallel lives all clash colliding into a shared doomed destiny.
Polonsky was well assisted by the well known cinematographer George Barnes famous for his exquisite photographing of Hollywood’s greatest beauties, however here Barnes in a change of pace, back-lit shots of empty dark New York streets evoking the noirish works of Nicholas Musuraca, Stanley Cortez and James Wong Howe. Polonsky states “I tried to tell George what I was looking for, but I couldn’t quite describe that to a cameraman…” So he went out and bought a book of Edward Hopper’s paintings of Third Avenue cafeterias and back-lit empty streets, showed it to Barnes and the cameraman knew exactly what to do. (1)
The use of New York location exteriors is superbly accomplished with extraordinary use of camera angles and design, specifically the overhead shots of Wall Street and the final scenes at the Palisades/Washington Bridge. The interiors are the same; breathing use of camera, lighting and mood. Polonsky’s use of the camera as an expressive tool visually moving the story forward makes this one of the most impressive first films ever made by a director.
“Force of Evil” was dismissed as just another gangster flick when first released. But here was a film that was not that simple. On the surface it is a story about a poor ghetto kid who is in a rush to make it big and well, if corruption was involved, so be it. However Polonsky had more on his mind than just a kid from the ghetto rising to the top. Here he also addresses the similarities, the overlapping correlation between organized crime and corporate America. For Polonsky, both are corrupt feeding their own pockets off the less fortunate. They may be wearing suits and working in respectable offices,but when necessary, the blood still flows. Some twenty four years later Francis Ford Coppola would reiterate these same ideas in “The Godfather.” It was these ideas that helped get Polonsky in trouble with the HUAC. Two decades later it would get Coppola an Oscar.
If the film has a problem I see it in the ending where Joe Morse eventually does the right thing after his brother is murdered, for which he feels responsible. It is these external forces, (Frank’s murder) that seem to transform Joe, changing his inner soul, his point of view on life, subsequently he gives himself up to the police. Polonsky later stated he had no choice but to show Joe repent and surrender to the law, it was the only way the film would receive the production code seal of approval.
The film’s dismal business may have been due to its unfortunate release during the Christmas season. “Force of Evil” was certainly not the kind of film the public wanted to see during the holidays when they were more in the mood for light fare like, “Adventures of Don Juan” , “The Paleface”, “Mexican Hayride” and “Every Girl Should Be Married” which were some of its competition those last weeks in December. Polonsky felt the film was a failure, not just financially either. He explains, “there’s a difference between what I really intended to do and what came off. I didn’t know how.”… He goes on “it was a difficult picture, and, of course, it was experimental in a way, deliberately experimental. But nevertheless, I thought that the general weight of it would be obvious, that people would feel it. But it wasn’t felt except by very sophisticated audiences.” (1)
For John Garfield, his career was also about to hit the skids, like Polonsky, he would have troubles with the HUAC. Garfield, like Humphrey Bogart was one of the screen’s first anti-heroes reflecting a cynical romanticism that fit the mood of the rebellious idealistic 1960’s, when this film and others of its milieu were rediscovered by the film generation. Garfield’s reemergence did not reach the heights of the Bogart cult but his films like many other noirs were rediscovered and evaluated. There are also some excellent performances from Thomas Gomez as Leo, the self-sacrificing older brother and Marie Windsor as Tucker’s slutty wife.
(1) The Director’s Event: Interviews with Five American Film-Makers (Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin)