Classic Selection for the Weekend of
December 3 - 5, 1999

      Force of Evil

If you are a fan of Martin Scorsese, you might be interested in the types of movies that influence his work. In the tape series Martin Scorsese Presents, available in video stores, you can see four films that he feels are crucial to his style and career. The films Force of Evil, A Double Life, Pursued and Johnny Guitar have been repackaged to include a short introduction from Scorsese, where he explains how the film impacted him, what he likes about the work and which of his films are influenced by it. This week's WaffleMovies.com Classic Selection celebrates one of those choices, Force of Evil, which also plays a crucial role in the history of Hollywood and the dark days of the red scare.

John Garfield stars as lawyer Joe Morse. An ambitious and greedy young man, Joe has gotten too cozy with one of his clients, a powerful and dangerous numbers racketeer named Tucker. The two have come up with a new scheme that will make them millions and destroy their rivals.

They have rigged the daily trifecta, which is the basis for numbers racketeering. By assuring that the trifecta for July 4th will be the widely played 7-7-6, Joe and Tucker will bankrupt many racketeers who will not be able to pay the thousands who superstitiously bet that number. Then, Tucker will swallow up all the bankrupt racketeers by paying off their debts and putting them to work for him.

Joe has convinced Tucker to put his brother, Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez) in charge of the new racketeering empire. Leo is a small time hustler who hates Tucker and feels his brother has become too corrupt and blinded by greed. He fears Joe has lost his soul and desperately argues that his brother needs to get out of the Tucker organization. Leo wants to go legit after July 4th, but doesn't know about the Tucker scheme that will bankrupt him with all of the other small time operations.

As the plan moves forward, Joe falls in love with Leo's friend, Doris (Beatrice Pearson), and realizes that maybe he is in too deep. A new Attorney General wants to wipe out the racketeers and may have enough evidence to arrest Joe and Tucker.

Can Joe save his brother? Can he save himself?

While the film was not well received when it premiered in 1949, Force of Evil is the defining movie of the film noir genre. Director and writer Abraham Polonsky creates a dark atmosphere and tone, uses brilliant camera work to quickly cut from one face to another to show multiple reactions to critical events, and utilizes the shadows to full dramatic effect. He also developed a screenplay with complicated characters, all full of regret, yet deeply involved with illegal activities. In some way, each character has given in to the Force of Evil. The screenplay is also beautifully rhythmic.

John Garfield gives a stunning and powerful performance. He delivers lines like, "rich relatives are better than doctors or medicine" with a cynical sneer. Garfield molds his character into a smooth, fast-talking, yet charming scoundrel. This is best witnessed in scenes where he is trying to romance Doris.

His character is utterly contemptible, but you can't help but be drawn in by his charm and self-confidence. In a twisted, but redeeming way, Joe is trying to help his brother by drawing him deeper into the scheme rather than face bankruptcy and possible physical harm. However, Joe is so corrupted, that he can't realize what he is asking his brother to take part in and why Leo objects. Joe also emerges as a tragic hero when he realizes that he is, "not strong enough to resist corruption, but strong enough to fight for a piece of it."  In many ways, Garfield was Pacino and De Niro before the anti-hero became a large figure in American movies.

Garfield and Polonsky were immense talents poised to take over Hollywood in the fifties, but it was not meant to be. During that time, the United States House of Representatives established the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to root out supposed Communist infiltration of the government and Hollywood. One of its most famous members was a young, ambitious lawyer and Congressman from Yorba Linda, California who would use the committee to break onto the national scene - Richard Nixon.

The committee would subpoena members of the Hollywood elite, who had come under suspicion for their liberal or left wing ideologies. Little or no evidence was needed to implicate a suspect. When called to testify before the committee, suspects were asked to affirm or deny their affiliation with the Communist party and to name anyone who should also be suspected of Communist sympathies. Polonsky and Garfield refused to identify whether or not they were Communists and did not identify any other possible Communists, referred to as "naming names". Dedication to principle had a high cost.  Both were blacklisted in Hollywood, which meant they could not find any employment because studios did not want to be associated with Communists.

Maybe Garfield was a Communist, but who cares.  He was also a great American who entertained the troops overseas during World War II after he was physically unable to serve due to a heart ailment. Sadly, these trips were used against him years later as his detractors tried to claim that he was up to no good on the trips.  His groundbreaking and forward thinking support for African Americans in Hollywood was also used against him.  

Garfield, who had started his own production company after being nominated twice for Academy Awards, was ruined. His career stalled, he had trouble getting financing to make more movies and was unable to get any acting roles with studios. Already known for "having a chip on his shoulder", he was full of rage after his career was destroyed by politicians who engaged in a witch hunt that he refused to play along with.  It all added up, and he died of a heart attack in 1952. 

Although he had been a successful novelist, Force of Evil was Polonsky's directorial debut and only his second screenplay. After the HUAC hearings, it was almost his last.

Polonsky went underground and continued to work under an assumed name. He became a script doctor and secretly wrote for television. He would not be able to use his own name until 1968 when he directed Robert Redford's Tell Them Willie Boy is Here. Sadly, Polonsky would only direct one more film.

Polonsky was one of the Motion Picture Academy of America's biggest critics when the organization decided in 1999 to give a lifetime achievement Oscar to acclaimed producer Elia Kazan. During the HUAC hearings, Kazan earned the scorn of Hollywood when he "named names", which destroyed the careers and lives of many of his friends and associates. Polonsky passed away in 1999.

Grade: A+

Director: Abraham Polonsky

Screenplay by: Abraham Polonsky and Ira Wolfert

Based on the Novel Tucker's People by Ira Wolfert


John Garfield ……………… Joe Morse

Thomas Gomez …………… Leo Morse

Marie Windsor ……………. Mrs. Tucker

Roy Roberts ………………. Tucker

Betrice Pearson …………… Doris

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