#569) Force of Evil (1948)

#569) Force of Evil (1948)

OR “Morse Code”

Directed by Abraham Polonsky

Written by Polonsky and Ira Wolfert. Based on the novel “Tucker’s People” by Wolfert.

Class of 1994

The Plot: Corrupt lawyer Joe Morse (John Garfield) works for gangster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), who wants a monopoly on New York’s illegal numbers racket. One of the smaller rackets that Tucker wants to buy out is owned by Joe’s estranged brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), who initially refuses to sell, but acquiesces once Joe calls the vice squad on him. As Joe continues to become more corrupt, he runs the risk of subverting Leo’s secretary Doris Lowry (Beatrice Pearson) and bookkeeper Mr. Bauer (Howland Chamberlain). Truly the quest for power is a…force of evil. Or is gambling the force of evil? The movie’s not quite clear on that.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a masterpiece of postwar American noir”, praising John Garfield’s performance and the screenplay’s “eloquent prose”.

But Does It Really?: Unfortunately this is one of those movies that I admired more than I enjoyed. “Force of Evil” is a lost gem with great performances and memorable cinematography, but I get it mixed up with all the other post-war noir of the era (“film gris” as Thom Andersen calls it). It’s a sub-genre of movies that has been eclipsed by the more artistic noir entries of its era (“Double Indemnity“, “Out of the Past“, etc.), and despite the artistic flairs of “Force of Evil”, it still sits in the same “above-average” column as “The Naked City” and “The Asphalt Jungle“. While not the most memorable NFR entry, “Force of Evil” adds to the “figures in the carpet” of underrated post-war movies that are still worth a viewing today.

Everybody Gets One: Abraham Polonsky initially studied law at Columbia, but eventually pivoted to writing. Among his first produced screenplays was “Body and Soul”, a John Garfield boxing vehicle that earned Polonsky an Oscar nod. Garfield commissioned Polonsky to write and direct a follow-up movie for Garfield’s Enterprise Productions. “Force of Evil” was Polonsky’s directing debut. This is also the only NFR appearance for practically the entire supporting cast, including stage actor Beatrice Pearson and then-recent Oscar nominee Thomas Gomez.

Wow, That’s Dated: It’s important to know that at this point in history, any type of numbers racket was illegal. New York would not have its first state-run lottery until 1967.

Title Track: The film adaptation of “Tucker’s People” was originally called “The Numbers Racket”, but the Code objected to having the word “racket” in a movie title. Like many a movie title of the era, no one ever says or explains “force of evil” during “Force of Evil”.

Other notes 

  • I’m new to the works of John Garfield (just this and my recent viewing of “Gentleman’s Agreement“), and I have to say he is on fire in this movie playing a real charming bastard. It’s an electric, charismatic performance, and it’s a shame we didn’t get too many more from Garfield after that. (see “Legacy” below).
  • One of the elevator operators at the beginning of the movie is voiceover legend Paul Frees in one of his rare on-camera roles.
  • “Rich relatives are better than doctors or medicine.” Ooh, that’s a good line. I’ll have to remember that.
  • While most of these actors never graduated beyond their B-movie status, some ended up blacklisted a few years later. One notable exception with Beatrice Pearson, who opted to forgo a film career in favor of the theater. Pearson’s decision is our loss, because she is making a dynamite film debut here, more than holding her own with John Garfield.
  • Thomas Gomez is one of those character actors who I’m sure I’ve seen in a thousand other movies, but a look at his filmography offers no answers. He’s like if Thomas Mitchell and Eugene Pallette had a baby (have fun getting that image out of your head).
  • Several sources cite then-seven year old Beau Bridges playing the role of Frankie Tucker in the movie (presumably the son of Joe’s boss), but his scenes appear to have been cut from the final film.
  • “Force of Evil” is one of many film gris with its share of inventive cinematography, mixed with some highly effective editing. Many critics have compared George Barnes’ camera compositions to the paintings of Edward Hopper, and they’re right. Polonsky gave Barnes a book of Hopper’s paintings to inspire him.
  • Also dated: the phrase “He gets the cigar”, the flip side of “Close but no cigar”. Apparently carnivals used to give out cigars as prizes. What a time to be alive.
  • This is at least the second movie on this list with Cain and Abel parallels for its strained sibling relationship, but this one doesn’t have Burl Ives providing the allegories. Points deducted.
  • “You tell me the story of your life and maybe I can suggest a happy ending.” Another good line. Polonsky was on a roll that day.
  • One of the first major plot points hinges on a horse race bet, and 776 wins big, as expected. Someone check that horse for steroids!
  • It’s hard not to laugh at the dramatic tension once the characters learn that their phone is tapped. Today it’d be a twist if someone wasn’t listening to your call.
  • Character actor Howland Chamberlain gets a chance to shine in the key supporting role of Mr. Bauer. And his glasses/pencil mustache combo makes Bauer look like Groucho Marx’s first dramatic role.
  • Roy Roberts is another one of those character actor who’s been flying under my radar this whole time. He’s in at least four other NFR movies, three of which I’ve already watched for this blog! And he’s in one of my favorite movies!
  • While the film mostly avoids the dramatic lighting of earlier film noir efforts, that all comes to a head in the finale, in which the only light comes from another room, slipping through the cracks in the door. It’s very effective.
  • Another feature in many of these noir-adjacent movies: on-location shooting. The film’s final moments take place in the real streets of New York, most notably the Little Red Lighthouse, right under the George Washington Bridge. It’s still there, and is one of New York’s many historic landmarks. And yes, it’s the same Little Red Lighthouse from the book.

Legacy 

  • While not a success in its day, “Force of Evil” has been reevaluated over time. Among its biggest champions: Martin Scorsese, who claims this was the first movie he can remember seeing (and that would explain a lot).
  • Unfortunately, “Force of Evil” is connected with the Communist witch hunt that was occurring in Washington around this time. Abraham Polonsky was a member of the Communist Party, and was blacklisted when he refused to testify. John Garfield’s refusal to name names led to his blacklisting, as well as the end of Enterprise Productions. Garfield died of a heart attack at age 39, his previous heart condition possibly aggravated by the pressures of the blacklist.
  • Abraham Polonsky returned to show business in the mid-60s with a few TV writing credits, and returned to the director’s chair for 1969’s “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here”. In addition to writing and directing, Polonsky taught at USC, and openly criticized Elia Kazan for naming names during in the ’50s. Polonsky died in 1999 at the age of 88.

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