“Force of Evil” (1948) starring John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, & Marie Windsor

Harvard-educated lawyer, Joe Morse (John Garfield), wants to consolidate the small-time numbers-racket (gambling) operators into one (big/powerful) operation, on behalf of his (racketeer) boss, Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). However, Joe’s older brother (nearly 50 y.o. w/ heart issues), Leo (Thomas Gomez), is one of the small-time operators who wants to stay that way, preferring NOT to deal w/ the gangsters who dominate the big time. These brothers share a volatile/guilt-ridden relationship; Leo raised Joe for some years after their parents died. To complicate matters, Tucker’s bored/unhappy wife, Edna (Marie Windsor- in the femme fatale role), has her eyes on Joe. Leo is concerned for those who work for him, esp. secretary, Doris Lowery (Beatrice Pearson; in her 1st/sole film role at age 28), who is the “good girl.”

Edna: You’re wide open, Joe. I can see into you without looking.

Joe: Don’t bother; besides it’s not nice to do.

Edna: More interesting than when you have a rock for a husband like mine. He’s a stone, that man. Whole world are rocks and stones to him.

Joe: Why tell me? Tell him.

Edna: Never tell him anything. Makes me feel unnecessary.

Joe: If I make you feel NECESSARY then I’m making a mistake.

Force of Evil was selected to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1994. It is included among AFIs 1998 list of the 400 movies nominated for the Top 100 Greatest American Movies. This film is predicts the legalization of the numbers racket into state-run lotteries. It also involves wiretapping technology- innovative at that time. Critic Thom Andersen identified this as an example of film gris, a suggested sub-category of film noir incorporating a left-wing narrative. Force of Evil was a major influence on Martin Scorsese; it was the 1st movie he remembers having watched as a boy. Scorsese explained that it showed NYC the way he knew it to look in real life. As a young filmmaker, he studied it frame-by-frame; Scorsese said that you can see the influence in Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas.

Edna: A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn’t have said.

This film is a tour de force for Garfield; it was released by MGM, but produced by Enterprise Productions (co-founded in 1946 by the actor and producers David L. Loew and Charles Einfeld). After Garfield’s contract w/ Warner Bros. ended, he wanted more creative control over his films. The (1st time) director and noted screenwriter is a childhood pal of Garfield’s- Abraham Polonsky. He collaborated w/ Ira Wolfert, the author of the source novel- Tucker’s People. In order to show cinematographer George Barnes how he wanted the film to look, Polonsky gave him a book of Edward Hopper’s Third Avenue paintings. The art director (AKA production designer) was Richard Day; he worked on Dodsworth, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley. The musical score is by the David Raskin (Laura) and suits the movie well. Below are some lines from my fave scene; this dialogue is gold!

Joe: If you need a broken man to love, break your husband. I’m not a nickel, I don’t spend my life in a telephone! If that’s what you want for love, you can’t use me.

Edna: You’re not strong or weak enough.

“The force of evil here is capitalism itself, according to the author- Polonsky,” as Eddie Muller (TCM) commented. I saw this movie (free on YouTube) this week; the run time is only 79 mins. You may have to see it 2x, b/c they pack in a LOT at a fast pace. There are MANY character actors who add flavor to the story. As one astute viewer wrote: “see for a slightly more polished and sophisticated view of the noir world.” Though he comes from “the slums” and grew up poor, Joe now wears fancy 3-piece suits and has a spacious office. He admits to Doris that he decided to work for Tucker for the money.

Joe [to Doris]: I didn’t have enough strength to resist corruption, but I was strong enough to fight for a piece of it.

Have you seen actors in person? I’ve seen a few (esp. when commuting/walking in my NYC days); they’re usually a BIT shorter/slimmer than they appear onscreen. Garfield (5’7″) stood on an apple box for a scene between him and Windsor; the curvy/statuesque actress was several inches taller. Windsor said he had no ego about it though. Of course, she couldn’t wear high heels- LOL! Notice how they bend and shift so they’re usually sitting near each other, NOT standing. I wanted to see a BIT more of Windsor; she gets to wear some great outfits. Check this movie out!

…one of the most audacious and subversive movies of its era. […] In the cab, when Joe gives Doris a ride, Polonsky gives free range to an extraordinary flow of dialogue- unnatural language that seems to emerge straight from the character’s subconscious. From this scene, Force of Evil is unique, each scene coming at the viewer from slightly left-of-center, both artistically and politically. -Eddie Muller, host of Noir Alley (TCM)

[1] Of course the fact that the film was shot totally on location in scintillating black and white noir in New York City, gave it a dimension that no other noir films have, save possibly Night and the City, which was also shot on location (in London).

[2] There are many more levels to this complex film and discussion of them all could fill many pages. Above all, it is a beautiful movie, expertly directed with tremendous black and white imagery. The dialogue combines snappy patter with almost poetic sensibility. And the performances of all concerned are top notch. This is truly a treasure of cinematic art. Be prepared to think deeply when you watch it.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

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