Though tricked out in an almost offhand way like a film noir, Force of Evil is actually something else entirely, an old school Greek tragedy, featuring a noble hero cursed by a fatal flaw in his character, one which will first be exposed and then cause his downfall.
John Garfield plays Joe Morse, a lawyer working for the boss of an illegal numbers racket. As the curtain goes up on a story that isn’t always that easy to follow, boss Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts) is trying to turn his business legit, but first he wants to bankrupt all of the smaller rivals also running numbers rackets so he can come through the other side not just smelling of roses but smelling of greenbacks. Joe is onboard with part one of this plan (going legit) but doesn’t quite know how to react to part two. He’s a decent guy at bottom, but he’s in so deep that he’s lost track of almost everything except the dollar signs.
On the other side of town, Joe’s estranged older brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) runs one of these small numbers operations, unaware he’s going to be ruined in the morning. Suddenly the good guy, Joe heads across town to warn Leo, setting in train a series of events that will end badly for everyone concerned, but most of all Leo.
As if to make us aware that something ancient and classical is going on in the background, writer Abraham Polonsky’s screenplay goes in heavily on the flowery language, especially in the scenes between Joe and love interest Doris (Beatrice Pearson), the sweet young thing who works for Leo and who is smitten with this pugnacious man’s man from the moment she claps eyes on him. And he is with her. Her innocence stirs something long dormant inside him.
Meanwhile, straight out of the film noir workbook, here’s boss’s wife Edna Tucker (Marie Windsor), a vamp with the hots for Joe, and who gets a scant scene to both introduce herself and make her move. Watch her as in she sails through one door, only to shortly sail right out of the other. She’s there as a reassurance that we’re firmly in the world of noir, but the way she’s dealt with suggests we’re not.
Garfield and Polonsky had worked together before, on the previous year’s Body and Soul – Garfield’s hugely successful boxing drama – but this is Polonsky’s debut as a director, and he matches his elevated language with geometric framing and unusual camera angles, adding a classical spin to the visuals as well as the verbals. A lot of critics at the time (Variety, notably) didn’t go a bundle on either.
What critics did seem to like was the frisson between Garfield and the incredibly effective Pearson, and their scenes together – heavy with suggestions of what he’d like to do to her and she to him – are still as sexy as hell. There’s one, in the back of a car, which must be one of the most erotically charged every committed to screen in the High Hollywood era.
Also electrifying is Thomas Gomez as the luckless Leo, a man with a heart condition, sweat always breaking out on his brow. Perhaps emboldened by Body and Soul, Gomez goes toe to toe with Garfield in all their scenes together and threatens to steal the film.
Garfield would be dead four years later, aged only 39, and reminds us here what a powerful yet nuanced actor he was. His funeral was mobbed, such was his popularity, but the years have not been kind – he died too young to have fully made his mark, but his smart, funny, rough-edged quality is exactly what’s needed in a character who needs to punch through the film’s big weakness.
Hang on to the performances, the elevated language and the lovely cinematography by George Barnes – the shots of deserted New York streets are particularly handsome – because the film itself is saddled with a tragic flaw. It can’t seem to differentiate between illegality and immorality.
Early on there’s an exchange between boss Ben Tucker and Joe Morse, during which Tucker points out that lotteries are perfectly acceptable in civilised countries like Ireland or Cuba, and that what they’re doing in the USA might be illegal but there’s nothing really that immoral going on. Polonsky, having got this out there, then has Joe, and more acutely Leo, wrangling with their consciences for the rest of the film, convinced that what they’re engaged in is all wrong, rather than just against the rules. Their characters are both smart enough to know the difference and the fact that they don’t destabilises both them and the whole drama. Force of Evil is the title. Evil? Really?
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© Steve Morrissey 2022