Force of Evil
Abraham Polonsky - 1948
Olive Films Region 1 DVD
An overdue promise I finally kept to myself after about ten years was to revisit Force of Evil. For myself, Abraham Polonsky's film will be linked with Robert Aldrich's Hustle. Aldrich was the Assistant Director on Force of Evil, but more importantly, Aldrich's film serves as a reworking of some of the same themes, most explicitly in the scene when cop Burt Reynolds declares to Ben Johnson, the father of a young woman who died of a drug overdose, that America is now a banana republic, "with color television". Force of Evil is as much a crime drama as is Hustle, which is to say what both films are really about is people caught up in inescapable webs of corruption. (And strangely enough, both films opened on Christmas day of their respective years, 1948 and 1975.)
John Garfield plays the lawyer Joe Morse, working on behalf of a gangster, Tucker, who runs the numbers racket. With so many people choosing the same number, 776, on July 4, the goal is to deliberately bankrupt the smaller "banks", allowing Tucker to consolidate the small-time operators into his fold, with Morse working on making this kind of gambling legal. One of those small banks belongs to Joe's brother, Leo, who would rather operate independently than sell out for a larger payroll. Everyone in this film is touched by corruption, even Leo's secretary, Doris, whom both Leo and Joe try to protect. Doris eventually follows Joe to his most literal descent to the bottom.
It would seem that almost seventy years later, there is more ease, more openness about selling out, no matter the relationships, or who gets hurt in the process. It doesn't take much to turn the story of a monopoly of the numbers racket into a story of corporate mergers or leveraged buy outs. The brothers attempt to make their questionable livelihoods more respectable, with Joe stating that he is in a "fiduciary relationship" with Tucker, while Leo makes claims of being an "honest businessman". I don't feel it necessary to name anyone in recent history who put their personal ambition ahead at the expense of another family member.
Joe Morse's anticipation of his million dollar payday is almost a parody of those who play the numbers, presented here as anonymous working people of modest means. As impassioned as Polonsky was politically, Force of Evil is remembered because of what Polonsky did as a filmmaker. Several others have discussed the use of language, liking the screenplay to blank verse. I thought of song lyrics, with the repetition of small phrases, as when Doris repeats, "I'll never forget . . ." when resigning from Leo's bank.
David Thomson discusses the use of language, and also the use of staircases. Three key moments take place with Joe descending staircases, and all three directly involve decisions that affect Leo. In two of those scenes, the camera is overhead, while in the final scene, the camera tilts up at Joe as he races down to the base of the George Washington bridge. Polonsky allows for visual beauty in shots of Joe, seen in the distance, dwarfed by the buildings around Wall Street and an unusually empty New York City.
I haven't read the source novel, Tucker's People, by Ira Wolfert, but from the available descriptions, Polonsky and Wolfert, who share the screenplay credit, significantly reshaped the story, as well as the characters. What neither probably anticipated is that their examination of the perverse forces of capitalism, and a world of moral flexibility, would still reverberate, in some ways, more so, almost seventy years later.