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A little something about 'Force of Evil'

Feb 2023

The Autopsy Of Capitalism or How Dylan Learned To Stop Whining And Sell Some Lingerie

If you stick round long enough sooner or later they’ll accept you. Now I’m pretty sure someone said this long before I just typed it and although I’m not sure who ‘they’ are, there’s truth in such an authorless statement. Bob Dylan used to be a real parent scarer, playing unfathomably loud and weird rock’n’roll whilst shouting ‘play fuckin louder’ at his band and now they give him honorary doctorates and in return he works for Victoria’s Secret. Christ they even inducted Ginsberg into the American Academy and he was a gay, drug taking, communist (all in the best possible sense).

So it goes that both Abraham Polonsky and John Garfield were both blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities and now they can be said to be the director and lead actor in one of the finest film noirs made during a golden age for the genre. Scorsese restored it, Sydney Pollack sings its praises and it gets preserved in the United States National Film Registry. Not bad for a pair of reds, hey?

Force Of Evil is one of those sly, smoke-and-mirrors films, which are on one hand about relatively genre specific things, crime and retribution, the fall from grace, violent men and untrustworthy women and on the other hand masterly conceptions of grand themes well hidden to avoid enemies. This is understandable. Polonsky, after refusing to testify before the committee, was blacklisted and branded a dangerous citizen by, no doubt, far more dangerous citizens. At a time when fear of censorship had risen to the level of fear for personnel safety, messages and ideas that ran counter to the prevalent forces had to be hidden from the politicians as well as the Hayes Code.

Now it has all the archetypes of the genre, the nervy voice-over, the threatening environment, the edgy tough guy and yes the hats and the high trousers, but as Kiss Me Deadly (1955) added a touch of sci-fi to the genre, Force Of Evil added a biblical element and understandably knowing its creators, politics. It seems as if the entire moral corruption of the human race is present in Garfields’s Joe Morse and his relationship with his doomed brother Leo, whose small time numbers racket Joe’s gangster boss, Tucker, wants to consolidate into his own. They’re Cain and Abel in a world dominated by leering, monstrous architecture shot by cinematographer George Barnes to resemble unearthly monoliths framing small time crooks and struggling everymen in crushing wide shots.

The final scene where Joe descends and is dwarfed by the George Washington Bridge resembles a descent into hell. In fact the use of exterior locations, heavy grey slabs of city streets, held into relief by a series of darkening degrees are truly ground-breaking (along with Jules Dassin’s equally exterior heavy noir The Naked City from the same year). The ‘city as character’ shooting style began a long and exalted element of American cinema that reached its zenith in the late 60’s early 70’s with filmmakers such as Friendkin, Lumet and Scorsese.

Like the cinematography, the film’s morality follows a similar path of ambiguous shade. The lines of legal and illegal are straddled, and most protagonists have a foot in both camps without ever fully committing to either. Again the power of genre cinema with its themes, politics and philosophies as undercurrents allows their application upon the struggles of generation after generation. We don’t live and work in an era where the financial sector covers similar ground without relating them to Morse’s and Tucker’s monopolisation. It’s the appliance of gangsterism to the rule of law.

Force Of Evil’s true genius is that it takes these broad and universal themes and boils them down to the personal; their effect upon the psychology and social standing of the individual. The BFI Companion to Crime phrased it best when it noted the film was ‘the reduction of human life to money and numbers’. We witness Leo’s mental breakdown, Joe’s moral breakdown and the breakdown of the family bonds between, all inflicted by the omnipotent power of finance. These are moral crimes, this is a crime film where the crimes are more ambiguous, more abstract, more open for interpretation, where, if profit is to be made we can inevitably philosophise ourselves out of this murky ethical corner.

These questions aren’t just asked in the intricacies of the plot, whole slabs of dialogue, written with an astounding lyrical ear for the poetry and rhythm of language, are thinly veiled manifestos stressing the crimes of the systems that underpin our society, hidden in plain sight to this very day, where we have built profits, property and legacies on the backs of the broken, explained away by dubious moral adaptation and historical revisionism.

Polonsky’s pinko leanings become apparent in this ‘autopsy of capitalism’ as he described the source material (Tucker’s People by co-screenwriter Ira Wolfert). The numbers racket, and therefore crime itself, are treated as a metaphor for capitalism, where good people are corrupted because they go about doing their good deeds in an inherently corrupt system. It’s this dissection of post-war western society which is relevant to this very day (and tragically beyond) that allows Force Of Evil to break free from the confinements usually set upon genre pieces in a way that’s comparable to The Searchers (1956) and Solaris (1972). No wonder, then, that it pissed off Senator McCarthy so much.

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