This is my contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. Please visit their sites for more great posts, and please consider donating to an extremely worthwhile cause by clicking here.
Even in 2011, Force of Evil is a relevant cautionary tale against the ambiguities of Capitalism and how certain individuals can manipulate that system for personal gain at the expense of others – in particular how the banking system in America can be compromised. It's not just that the film is an expertly crafted noir that plumbs the depths of moral ambiguity like all good noir pictures do; no, writer/director Abraham Polonsky was interested in making a film that was much more socially conscience than that. As we all know, film-noir was always a subgenre that allowed the freedom for certain iconoclasts to voice their displeasure with minor issues (the Hollywood studio system) or bigger issues (Capitalism and government). The best film-noir employs a voiceover to usher us through the murky, moral dilemmas our protagonist must face; however, the best noir employ striking visuals, too, to make us feel what the protagonist is feeling: like the world is crashing down on them. Perhaps no moment in Force of Evil better articulates this than the film's final moments where both narration and amazing visuals put us in the shoes of our protagonist Joe (John Garfield) whose world is, quite literally, spiraling down to the very nadir of his existence as he looks for his missing brother, Leo (Thomas Gomez), who has been taken by the very criminals Joe has been helping.
It is here that Polonsky's film doesn't quite give itself over to the nihilistic and pessimistic tendencies of noir (I dare say a little idealism and optimism creep in at the end) as Joe finds the horrifying results of his actions: his brother's dead body washed up on the rocks. This doesn't lead him – as most noirs would – to take the ill-gained money and run off with the girl; no, instead he leaves with girl to go turn himself into the police. It's an idealistic ending to an otherwise cynical movie; an ending that suggests we think about one more time in terms of Biblical allegory as Joe tries to atone for his sins by turning himself in.
But let's back up for a moment in case you haven't seen Force of Evil. The story is a simple one: Joe is a lawyer who runs the books for some gangsters. His plan is to rig the lottery so that when his numbers hit (un a wonderfully subversive touch, Polonsky writes Joe's Lotto plan so that it is to be executed on July 4; also, not to be too obvious or anything, Polonsky writes it so that Joe rigs the lottery with the winning numbers being 776 – or, to put it all together, July 4, 1776) all of the banks will have to rely on him to help pay off their debts. Joe recruits his brother Leo who has not had as much fortune as he; Leo works at a small business in the slums. Joe pitties him and offers him a chance to make some big, albeit ill-begotten, money from his lotto scam. And so it is: Force of Evil is an exemplery example of what many audiences would come to love about films like The Godfather and Goodfellas; that is, it's a film about organized crime before such a thing was sexy in Hollywood.
You can see the influence all over Scorsese's films: for example, I love the opening shot where Barnes shoots a bird's-eye of Wall Street with the Trinity Church in the foreground – an obvious coalescing of the sacred and profane. The film is littered with Biblical references (parallels to Cain and Abel and Judas' betrayal just to name a few) and predates Coppola and Scorsese by nearly 40 years in melding something innocent (American Dream) with something corrupt (organized crime). In fact, I first heard about this film in Scorsese's seminal film seminar A Personal Journey Through American Films where Scorsese mentions the influence this film had on his pictures, especially Mean Streets.
The film is everything you expect a good, standard noir to be: tough guys, crooked lawyers, numbers rackets, dames, beautiful black and white cinematography, great use of shadows, wonderful narration that makes one nostalgic for all things noir, and a brisk, no-nonsense film (it clocks in at 79 minutes) that doesn't try to pad its narrative. George Barnes' cinematography isn't just beautiful black and white photography (although it most assuredly is that...see the extra stills below), but it also understands Polonsky's dialogue. Barnes' camera wonderfull engulfs the film's characters in shadow, dwarfs them with on-location exteriors, frames things perfectly in showing isolated characters (especially the ones with a moral conscience) moving through an indifferent world (namely Wall Street); it's all so wonderfully executed and says what it needs to say without drawing attention on itself (Barnes' cinematography reminded me of the loneliness and isolation motifs found throughout Edward Hooper's work).
Most film-noir's are high on style at the expense of dialogue that is usually terse where exposition is fleshed out through voiceover narration; however, in Force of Evil, Polonsky's character speak quite poetically about morality and what it means to live. There's a great scene near the end where Leo talks about dying "while you're breathing," and we just know (and we don't have to wait long thanks to Polonsky's editing during the sequence) that something bad is about to happen when he utters those words. It's a slower, quieter moment before a more brusquely violent one in a subgenre that often doesn't lend itself to such dialogue. It shows that Polonsky was interested in making a different kind of noir picture than the ones that often got slapped with (perhaps unfair) label of "B-movie."
When Cinemascope pushed noir out of theaters and onto the smaller screens with 1953's The Robe, filmmakers found it harder to make these kind of "statement" films with a subgenre like film-noir because studios were no longer willing to finance them, and audiences seems ready to shed the weariness of post-WWII aesthetic for something more benign; audiences were tired of being dragged through the mud and being reminded of how they couldn't trust their government, and they wanted to instead see films on an epic scale that very clearly had no other intention except to distract people from what was going on around them. Force of Evil (which was met with mixed reviews) was a politically charged film that was released during the heyday of noir (10 years later Orson Welles would make the last "true" noir with Touch of Evil) and remains one of the finest examples of what the subgenre is capable of. Like the horror genre, noir allowed filmmakers to work on a film that most studios felt were just their B-pictures and weren't worth sweating over or micro-managing; therefore, filmmakers were left with a lot of room to maneuver to creatively both with aesthetic (mostly because they didn't have much of a budget, so they had to be creative) and with the themes of their pictures. Most of these films were considered nothing more than "dirty little noirs" (granted, some were more popular than others thanks to their casts and directors, but the majority of noir, just like the characters that inhabit the stories, exists in the margins), but Force of Evil proves that the subgenre was capable of so much more.
This isn't some hidden gem dying to be re-discovered (it was labeled by the United States National Film Registry as being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant, therefore it was preserved and later produced by the film's biggest and most famous fan: Martin Scorsese); it's an important film of its time and of our time now; it's not at all surprising that such a politically antagonistic filmmaker would eventually get (unfairly) blacklisted from Hollywood. He was described as being "a dangerous citizen," and no doubt his refusal to testify before the HUAC had a lot to do this, but I have to believe that when the people that made the asinine decision looked at Force of Evil, they saw someone who was a "threat" because of its unfiltered commentary about Capitalism (it's also no surprise that the film resonated more with audiences in London upon its initial release). It was an important film then, and it's most definitely an important film now. And it's pretty damn entertaining, to boot.