Bright Lights Film Journal

Plumbing the Depths of Capitalism: On <em>Force of Evil</em>

“It was like going down to the bottom of the world”

“This is Wall Street.” Like so many films of the late forties, Force of Evil (1948) seems to open on a documentary note, with a high-angle shot looking over the shoulder of Trinity Church, down the canyon towards the stock exchange. But the voice informing us of what we’re looking at is no stentorian narrator’s. It is the edgy, biting yet seductive voice of John Garfield as Joe Morse, a man savoring the prospect of making his first million dollars. Garfield’s voice carries the film from beginning to end, and his Bronx street-boy accent lends grit to its lyrical dialogue. His voice is like a rubber band, elastic and tense, and on certain lines it snaps. The whole film matches Garfield’s performance: taut, restrained and bristling, it gives out static shocks. You need to see it more than once, since it moves so quickly and subtly that you won’t get it all the first time.

Force of Evil, adapted from Ira Wolfert ‘s 1943 novel Tucker’s People, was the second project undertaken by John Garfield’s independent Enterprise Productions, which he had formed after leaving Warner Brothers in 1946. His first effort, Body and Soul, was a big hit; it also dealt with corruption and the moral progress of a man who sells his soul and then decides he wants it back. It was a more conventional movie both in style and story, with a rousing conclusion and Garfield in the familiar role of a truculent, rather dim but charismatic boxer. The script was by Abraham Polonsky, and after the film’s success Garfield hired Polonsky to not only write but direct Force of Evil, a far more sophisticated and corrosive portrait of American greed. It’s no surprise that Polonsky would wind up blacklisted a few years later, or that the film was not warmly received by audiences in 1948. In 1996, Martin Scorsese chose it as one of four “forgotten classics” of American film, which were restored and released on home video with introductions by Scorsese. He noted here that Force of Evil was the first film he saw that depicted the world and people he knew.

Joe Morse is a “smart” (i.e., crooked) lawyer who comes up with a brilliant scheme for his gangster boss to take over all of the illegal numbers banks in the city by rigging the lottery to hit a number everyone has bet on, thus bankrupting the small outfits and forcing them into the combination, which will bail them out. The only snag is that Joe’s estranged older brother runs just such a bank, and Joe wants to give him a special break. Leo (Thomas Gomez) wants nothing to do with Joe, but his moral indignation is a cover for his resentment of the more successful brother for whom he made sacrifices. Leo admits that he is crooked too, only on a much smaller scale. His wife will have none of it: “You’re a businessman,” she insists. But there’s little to distinguish business from crime in this caustic dissection of capitalism. “Money has no moral opinions,” Joe says, and his description of the perfume of filthy lucre is as rapturous as Sidney Falco’s paean to success in Sweet Smell of Success. In a subversive touch, Joe’s plan is pegged to the popularity of betting on 776, “the old liberty number,” on the Fourth of July. Patriotism is just an excuse for making a fast and dirty buck.

A glib lawyer and a tough guy, Morse is also far more complex than either type. He’s a charmer, bright and bitter, vain and self-loathing, a man who thinks too much and not enough. Garfield found the key to the character in the Phi Beta Kappa key that Morse wears on his watch-chain over his expensive suits. It gives him a touch of pathos: he clings to pride in his success and can’t understand why people don’t admire him, why they aren’t grateful when he tries to help them. In the back of a taxi (right), Joe tells sweet, clean-cut Doris (Beatrice Pearson), one of his brother’s employees, that to give and want nothing back is “perversion, it’s not natural.” Doris thinks Joe must be evil; why else would she be unable to resist him? (“Wickedness,” Oscar Wilde wrote in Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young, “is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.”) People find it easy to project their own corruption onto Joe, to blame him for tempting them, because he’s open about his greed and cynicism. They want to be forced to sin, so they can believe they are victims, not perpetrators. Joe himself is corrupted – actively and willingly – by Tucker, the gangster for whom “the whole world is rocks and stones.” Joe boasts, “I wasn’t strong enough to resist corruption, but I was strong enough to fight for a piece of it.” The hapless employees of Leo’s numbers bank are neither, and no one in the film is more despicable than the rat-like Bauer (Howard Chamberlin), a clerk who panics at the prospect of the take-over and whose cowardice brings disaster to everyone.

Beatrice Pearson, a baby-faced newcomer whose career went nowhere after this film, is the weak link in the cast, though her part would be hard for anyone to play convincingly. She’s the only innocent, inexperienced character on screen, yet she talks in the same hyper-articulate style as the others and comes off as awkwardly stagy. With her calf eyes and wispy voice, she is never credible as a girl from the slums; where Eva Marie Saint shows real pain and bitterness in On the Waterfront, Pearson’s Doris just seems prim and snooty. Far more enjoyable is statuesque noir icon Marie Windsor as Mrs. Tucker; her two scenes with Garfield crackle with her come-ons and his brush-offs. She needles and provokes him, pursuing him not out of desire or boredom so much as lust for power, the pleasure of proving him weak. And he knows it, finally snapping, “If you need a broken man to love, break your husband.”

Force of Evil uses film noir clichés – the nice girl and the femme fatale, the good brother and the bad brother – but complicates them. Both women are marginal to the central relationship between the brothers, whose guilt-steeped bond is the emotional core of the movie, on both sides complex, poisoned, yet unbreakable. Joe wants a clear conscience and Leo’s approval, even though he sees his brother as a small man. Leo comforts himself by despising Joe and laying guilt on him, yet he turns fiercely on Bauer when the latter threatens Joe. When Joe speaks of what a “black thing” self-sacrifice is, he’s thinking of Leo, who is consumed by bitterness because he gave away the chances he wanted for himself.

Polonsky’s script is justly famous for its rich, oblique dialogue. Leo, played fiercely by Gomez, has a beautiful speech about how with heart trouble, “You feel yourself dying. Here . . . and here . . . You’re dying while you’re breathing.” The transcendent score is by David Raksin, who wrote the classic theme to Laura. By contrast the film’s settings (all real New York locations) are steeped in grim realism: cramped, sweaty little rooms, dingy diners and subterranean nightclubs. This is not the glamorous noir world of trench-coated heroes and femme fatales, but a world of small-time crooks, struggling family men who happen to be on the wrong side of the law, cowards and losers and mean thugs. The lighting and camera-work by George Barnes were based on Edward Hopper’s paintings, with wide shots of solitary figures moving through urban canyons, stark lamplight in nocturnal offices, and the beautifully bleak dawn light under the George Washington Bridge, where Joe goes to find his brother’s body. Polonsky claimed this haunting final scene was not about moral redemption, merely revenge; but Joe’s revenge is also against himself, a repudiation of his whole way of life.

All of the interesting tough guys have something going on behind the façade of toughness. With Bogart it’s anger, with Mitchum it’s sadness, with Garfield it’s hunger and fear. He’s afraid for the same reason Bogart is angry and Mitchum is sad: because the world is so treacherous and corrupt. Toward the end of Force of Evil, the star’s sweaty face betrays pure, childlike terror. In 1948 Garfield had only a few more years to live. A left-wing Jew (though never a Communist), he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and his career ground to a halt after his principled refusal to name names. Like Leo Morse, he was a man with heart trouble; exacerbated by a blend of guilt and anxiety as HUAC persecuted him and he agonized over whether to give in and save his career, his weak heart killed him at only thirty-nine. Force of Evil is Garfield’s best film and perhaps his best performance, combining his raw impact and uneasy intelligence, his restrained naturalism and magnetic charm. He goes down into his character, as Joe goes down and down the steps of the bridge, to find the unwelcome truth at the bottom.