Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger reviews Force of Evil, one of the top ten film noirs of all time.
"To give and not want anything back, that's perversion. To reach out, to take it, that's human, that's natural. But to get your pleasure from not taking. From cheating yourself deliberately like my brother did today, from not getting, from not taking. Don't you see what a black thing that is for a man to do? How it is to hate yourself, your brother, to make him feel that he's guilty, that I'm guilty. Just to live and be guilty."—Joe Morse
We have Force of Evil to thank for Goodfellas: Martin Scorsese freely admits that the tone of Force of Evil influenced some of his pictures. Fitting, then, that we have Martin Scorsese to thank for Force of Evil. Scorsese began championing this intense 1948 noir film about twenty years after it was filmed. Nearly four decades later, it has arrived on DVD. Force of Evil may have been headed for lost film status and is now recognized as one of the greatest noirs. This DVD release is a triumph for noir fans.
Facts of the Case
Joe Morse (John Garfield) is a scrappy mob lawyer with a plan to take over the policy banks that support illegal betting on the numbers racket. The plan is solid, but there is one niggling detail: Joe's brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) happens to run one of those policy banks. Joe is not one to let brotherly love stand in the way of business, but he owes Leo for years of self-sacrifice.
When Leo fails to heed Joe's advice, Joe is forced to take a more active role in saving Leo's livelihood. In doing so, he encounters the naïve but luminous Doris Lowry (Beatrice Pearson), one of Leo's trusted employees. Her innocence and Leo's stubbornness goad Joe into further uncharacteristic actions, which threatens his entire scheme. In the world of noir, all it takes is one good deed to cause ruin and mayhem. Joe Morse just might be capable of a good deed.
Our viewing of some films is enhanced by knowing the circumstances surrounding their creation. Abraham Polonsky, a passionate Marxist, made Force of Evil into a fable against Social Darwinism and capitalism. Unlike Fight Club, Force of Evil did not enjoy an era of political tolerance. Polonsky was blacklisted during the communist witch hunts, and his career was effectively squelched. His dispatch was probably hastened by Force of Evil's radiant anger and palpable political agenda. Ironically, these same subtexts make it an outstanding film.
Force of Evil is a dense noir film that drives at you with its characters and their tensions. Joe's ambition and ability spar with guilt and hesitation. Though he is polished into the worst stereotype of a crooked lawyer, we are constantly given glimpses into his humanity. As Joe coerces and connives with dizzying speed, the camera assaults us with different angles and new textures, reinforcing Joe's breakneck descent. Leo swelters his way through a painful existence, flushed with emotion and worry. Closeups reveal his furrowed, glistening brow just as Thomas Gomez's eyes flash with cornered rage. We can feel the weight of responsibility press down on Leo, which is a testament to both the actor and the cinematographer (George Barnes, also responsible for the look of Hitchcock's Rebecca and Spellbound). The effect is a rawer version of Henry Hill's gradual acceleration and loss of control in Goodfellas.
The brief run time belies a plot choked with subtext and action. The plot makes perfect sense, but you'll be hard pressed to realize it the first time around. Bit players are significant, minor events vital. The whole web is difficult to grasp, yet somehow Force of Evil seems concise.
As you work your way through the train wreck, a voice emerges. That voice is Polonsky's; he uses it to assault us with a brazen equation of capitalism with corruption. This analogy has led to criticism that Force of Evil's message is a simplistic and didactic "crime doesn't pay." Those who write off the message as such aren't paying close enough attention. In fact, had Joe stuck to his criminal scheme, he would have prospered. What causes Joe to fail is remorse, which is a human expression of culpability. Leo is in most respects an upright, honest man. The people involved in the numbers racket are all tainted with its illicit stench, but they are human. Good, evil, indifferent, but people nonetheless. Polonsky's point is greater than a condemnation of crime. He decries the system that forces people into such decisions. He isn't saying "crime doesn't pay," but rather that a system that makes crime seem preferable is broken. One could still argue that this point is made in ham-fisted fashion, but I think Polonsky is only guilty of minor and infrequent steps over the line. I'll overlook that in a passionate first-time director any day.
Evil pervades Force of Evil, but we can't precisely put our finger on it. Doris is set up as the innocent flower, but she grasps hold of Joe's offered temptation readily enough. Joe is painted as a blight; his brother and sister-in-law ward against the evil eye in his presence. But when Doris accuses Joe of being thoroughly corrupt, he offers a surprisingly believable defense: He pretends to coerce his brother, and his brother pretends to be coerced. True or not, it casts enough suspicion on Joe's evilness and Leo's goodness that we can't be sure what to believe. And that is the very nature of evil.
Garfield's delivery (as well as his costars' delivery) makes Polonsky's words sing. The dialogue is unnaturally fluid. Words stream and twist around each other to form sharp ends. Garfield and Pearson's exchanges are particularly memorable for their flirtatious warmth and deadly undercurrents. Joe seems to be at his most open with Doris, but we are never convinced that he wants to love her. He seems to be the most honest when he talks to himself in her presence. They usually talk about Leo, which is another dynamic that shines. Gomez and Garfield create a natural sibling love/hate relationship. Leo cannot hide his displeasure with Joe, but he keeps listening to what Joe has to say. No matter who is speaking, there are many quotable lines in this movie. Just listen…the next gem is a minute away.
Force of Evil is technically impressive, and Lions Gate's transfer does it justice. The values are crisply distinct without overreliance on edge enhancement. Scratches were removed here and there, but the film's natural grain was allowed to shine through. The transfer has stable focus and a clear range of values. This range is vital for showing off Force of Evil's visual style. The film opens with a kinetic shot of Wall Street in a posture of aggressive immediacy. The sets are ritzy and light, suggesting that Joe is in firm command of his environment. We don't get a sense of his partner Ben's (Roy Roberts) personality until Joe suggests a deviation from the plan in order to bail out Leo. Ben suddenly threatens Joe while the camera switches to a dramatic overhead angle and the shadows grow long. This brief but ominous moment is supplanted by mostly gray interior shots. Leo's abode is cramped and bland, depicted by grays that melt into one another. But events begin to spiral, and the camera keeps up. The angles become more dramatic and the shadows more pronounced, crashing together in a dramatic moment of pure darkness with one beam of light shining through. You can say that much of Force of Evil's run time is devoted to rather undramatic settings, or you can consider that the shadows and dramatic angles are reserved for truly vital moments.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Where the visuals shine, the audio detracts. I detected several pops and distortions in the track. For example, one scene had a car engine humming; instead of a steady hum we got "HUMMMMmmmmmMMMMMMmmm-m-m-m-mmmMMMM." Perhaps the most annoying sonic artifact was a solid, low-level buzz from the subwoofer that plagued the last third of the film. At first I thought the plug might have come loose and caused a bit of interference, but it is inherent in the soundtrack.
The soundtrack is not as impressive as the visuals. David Raksin's compositions are truly interesting, opening up scenes that would otherwise seem cloistered. He follows the kinetic feel of the cinematography by layering unlikely instruments with abandon. The approach works well in several scenes, such as the opening and some of the quieter moments. At other times, the soundtrack sticks out for its inappropriate emotional tone. The best example of this is the positively upbeat swell at the end, when Joe is experiencing his darkest hour. In fairness, the ending of the film was dictated by production codes that forced a happy ending, whether or not such an ending was appropriate. The music is nonetheless irritating.
The plot is so dense that many viewers will be left scratching their heads. Joe, Leo, Bauer, Ben, Bill, Egan, Wally, and Wheelock act simultaneously, leaving quite a knot for us to sort through. It is precisely the same density of pace that makes Goodfellas feel rich and powerful, but Goodfellas keeps us in the swing while Force of Evil dizzies us.
Equally dizzying is the infamous aspect ratio blurb on the back of (now defunct) Artisan releases. This feature has not been modified from its original aspect ratio, unless you happen to count 1.37:1 being trimmed to 1.33:1. Since we accept that films of that era were shot with a bit of "overscan" to account for imperfectly sized screens, this slight shaving of the image is perfectly acceptable. That blurb should be struck from every DVD cover on which it appears.
Given Force of Evil's high standing in the world of noir film, the lack of extras is puzzling and disappointing. Look at what Jay Fenton was able to do with Blonde Ice, a relatively insignificant noir in comparison. Surely a studio with the resources of Artisan/Lions Gate could come up with something.
When a director pours the measure of his rage onto the screen, when the actors respond to the challenge with gritty and open portrayals, and when the cinematographer and composer provide thought-provoking compositions, you have a rare masterpiece. The dialogue alone is worth listening to, but Force of Evil gives us so much more in a succinct jewel of a film. The lack of extras and a handful of audio flaws mar what would have been one of the seminal DVD noir releases, but a careful transfer makes up for it.
This court offers a retroactive pardon for both Polonsky and Garfield.
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