Force of Evil (1948)

Abrahams Polonsky suggests that entrepreneurship is not so far away from criminality and that something is corrupted in the immaculate postwar American society.

Force of Evil Poster

Abraham Polonsky was one of the lesser known but most important people in the history of film-noir. He started working in the film industry from the early 1930s as script editor and scriptwriter. In 1947 he writes the screenplay of Robert Rossen’s boxing film-noir Body and Soul. A year later he writes and directs his first feature film entitled Force of Evil (1948). The film was also his last credited work in Hollywood for the next 21 years as in 1951 he was charged and blacklisted as a communist by the McCarthy committee. When Force of Evil was initially released, it didn’t get any positive reviews from the American critics. Some years later it was rediscovered by the French film critics and slowly acquired the status that has today. It still remains a highly influential film for the filmmakers and Martin Scorsese has mentioned the impact that Force of Evil had in his work.

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The story is centered on Joe Morse (John Garfield), a corrupted lawyer who works on behalf of the powerful gangster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). Tucker wants to control the market of illegal lotteries that exist in New York City. With Morse’s knowledge and help he is planning to set up the numbers of the draw which coincides with Independence Day. This plan will lead all the small illegal banks, which manage the bets, in bankruptcy. In this quite legal way, Tucker can buy them all and afterwards he could create a bet monopoly in town. Joe’s big brother, Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez) is the owner of one of those banks and young Doris (Beatrice Pearson) is one of his assistances. Doris will grab Joe’s attention when he is trying to protect his brother by persuading him to join the new Tucker’s system. Of course such a big transition is always dangerous and hides many conflicts.

Force of Evil (1)

At first glance and by just observing the elements of the plot, the film looks like another typical film-noir of the late 40s, but Polonsky did not stay at this superficial reading. Force of Evil is primarily a deep radical political film which by exploiting the era’s trend is camouflaged as a typical gangster film. Joe, the main character, is not just an accomplice of the gangsters; on the contrary he is their link with the sham legality and their well-looked-after front to the reality. By using his valuable knowledge and by finding the legal loopholes, Joe is trying to turn illegal betting into legitimate game, money laundering into investments, prohibited banks into corporate branches, the gangsters into shareholders and the gang into business. At the same time and despite the fact that he comes from a poor family, Joe will gain his first million and he will be a full member of the company. Essentially what is hidden behind this scheme is the entire structure of the American Dream. Polonsky presents in the most evident way the so-called magical transition from the non-existence of poverty or illegality to the healthy profitable capitalism, the same form of capitalism that just 20 years ago led to the historic Crash of 1929. The degradation of a successful and seemingly moral system and its direct correlation with a brutal criminal organization is unprecedented for Hollywood standards especially when it is manifested so obviously . Polonsky simply suggests that entrepreneurship is not that far away from criminality and that something is corrupted in the immaculate postwar American society.

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Without a doubt Force of Evil is the most complete work in Abraham Polonsky’s career. Even if the story is actually an adaptation of Ira Wolfert’s book Tucker’s People, it has some evident remarks of the director’s way of writing. Undoubtedly Polonsky filtered the screenplay through his ideological beliefs but he didn’t follow a sterile propagandistic form. The whole story is structured in a quick sequence of emphatic dialogues that are both realistic and in a sense pompous. Also, the strictness of the content and of the heroes’ sayings is not that incongruous as it is perfectly aligned with the great poetic almost epic atmosphere that Force of Evil creates. It is no coincidence that the memorable quotes of the film surpass in fame quotes from better-known films and this is solely due to Polonsky’s writing. The value of the director’s use of poetic speech is enhanced even more by the fact that he didn’t just stay loyal to this particular form but he enriched each phrase and each scene with symbolisms. There are profound sexual innuendos, political hints, religious – biblical references and even small doses of humorous lightness that are necessary in such dark and pessimistic film. John Garfield’s impressive performance plays a catalytic role to the right interpretation of these distinctive dialogues as he is combining the bad guys’ harshness of the past with the indefinite charm of the next decade’s heroes. The final result is tied by the accurate direction which reaches the sentimental borderlines. Every situation, each feeling and all the heroes are on the brink of decline and the slightest wrong move could lead to their collapse.

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By masterfully using all the typical elements of film-noir, Polonsky succeeds to diversify Force of Evil so much from the genre and the film almost becomes an anti-film-noir. Polonsky’s anxiousness to depict everything he wants is present in each frame, and that leads him to an apparent accuracy which makes the film so complete that feels flawless. Abraham Polonsky attributed this excessive precision that Force of Evil had to his fear that he wouldn’t direct again and for this reason he wanted every moment of the film to be perfect.

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