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Force of Evil

Force of Evil(1949)

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Watch John Garfield's Force of Evil (1948) right after you've watched his Body and Soul (1947) and it's impossible not to realize that they're the same film in theme and construction. One says "Garfield's" and "his" because Garfield didn't just star in both. They were made by Garfield's own production company, Enterprise, which he formed when his contract with Warner Brothers expired. Just as his tough-guy ethnic outsider paved the way for Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, this declaration of independence anticipated similar moves by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Burt Lancaster. Garfield's instincts were sound. There's something to be said for a film where you don't have to go deep-sea diving to extract subtexts and hidden meanings. Both films tell a story worth telling twice, and tell it compellingly.

In Body and Soul, Garfield portrays a boxer struggling to reclaim his soul after handing it over to a crooked promoter. In Force of Evil, he plays a lawyer who prospers by smoothing things out for a numbers racketeer, then tries to reverse course when he sees what harm his deal with the devil has done. The theme of integrity lost and recovered was an important one to Garfield and the members of the formative artistic influence in his life, The Group Theater collective of the 1930s. Its members agonized over whether film work in Hollywood was tantamount to selling out. There was another more immediately urgent issue. The House Un-American Committee was gearing up a witch hunt that took the form of rooting out supposed communists in the film industry. The point of honor among those called to testify was not whether they were members of the Communist Party or not (Garfield said he never was), but whether they were willing to do HUAC's bidding and name the names of others. Garfield refused. Robert Rossen, who directed Body and Soul, did. Garfield then hired Body and Soul screenplay writer Abraham Polonsky, to direct Force of Evil. Polonsky, blacklisted soon afterward, didn't direct again until 1969's Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. But his mind was very much on his work in Force of Evil. More than a change of costume from trunks, gloves and a boxing ring to custom-made suits and a sleek office, it's even tighter and more electrifying than its predecessor, just as much a classic. Throughout, it crackles with something more than urgency. It's propelled by the energy of a story desperate to get itself told and if its elements are at times crudely tabloid, they also summon a gritty urban poetry that grabs and holds you.

The driving force in both is Garfield - rugged, broad-shouldered, sexily unruly, attacking his lines, attacking both characters with a passion and abandon that sweep you along with his tainted protagonists. Always you feel Garfield is taking his characters and their dilemmas personally, whether in the ring or in the rackets. He's not repeating anything in Force of Evil. He's regenerating it, the "it" being a battered idealism that in the end refuses to go down for the count. He's even more compelling the second time around - and he's no slouch the first. Never has a film's title been more accurate. Watching Garfield's Joe Morse realize this, and climb out from under his hubris to undo the grave harm he has done is a wrenching journey.

Although Force of Evil tells a tabloid story, it's elevated by the passion in the playing of it, and by the poetry in Polonsky's terse but sentient and at times even gutter-lyrical script. It's advanced no end by Thomas Gomez's richly textured and deeply felt performance as Joe's elder brother, Leo, content to run a small neighborhood numbers pad, a man who has no trouble with his occupation, and who cares about the people who work for him. He may not be an unblemished man, but he's an honorable man, far more than just a small-time version of Joe, looking down from the top. The conflict is brought to a head when the big boss, Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), decides to wipe out the city's small independent operations like Leo's and take over all the numbers action by fixing a July 4th race so the pari-mutuel numbers 776 win. Because that number is widely played on July 4, most of the small operators are wiped out.

Joe assures Leo he'll be even better off working for Tucker, as Joe has arranged. But Leo, whose employees end up jailed and out of work, is disgusted by the way the mob works. Having a lower tolerance for corruption than his lawyer brother, Leo wants out entirely. Disheveled Leo, looking all the more simpatico for his rumpled look and unbuttoned vest over his paunch, is kidnapped, however, by a rival mobster. Additionally, Leo's milquetoast bookkeeper is murdered because he could have identified the kidnappers. Matters of escalate, punctuated by Beatrice Pearson's true-blue working girl trying to wean Joe away from the mob, and by noir diva Marie Windsor, as the mobster's bored wife, coming on to Joe, oozing suggestiveness. Bent as his moral compass may be, however, he knows she's trouble. But not until the violence to Leo does Joe belatedly awaken to the fact that evil eats those who cozy up to it. The film builds to a jackhammer climax, preceded by a brilliant coup de cinema when Joe and Pearson's good girl in a series of long and medium shots go down, down, down, from the Washington Bridge, zigzagging their way through a descent on stone steps to the rocks at the Hudson River, where Joe finds Leo dead. In a last-round KO, Joe draws the killers and the crooks to his office for a showdown, prepared to pay the moral bill he has run up. The film's title, like the film itself, remains balefully pertinent, especially the part about the mergers and acquisitions that grow crime, and by extension, large organizations throwing their weight around to devour smaller ones. The forfeit of Joe's law career is an ironic, if pale, stand-in for the life of the dynamic Garfield himself, whose scarlet fever-weakened heart cannot but have been stressed unduly by his HUAC grilling. He died in 1952, aged 39. One can only imagine what he might have gone on to had he had the chance.

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by Jay Carr