Noir is darkness, noir is crime and noir is human folly, a force of evil. Films about weakness, deceit, lust driven crime, greed and mid-century urban survival. In the noir city disasters are acted out in bars, cars and street corners, or in cheerless apartments, suggestive of a kind of homelessness. The high contrast lighting is central , as is the downward plot spiral which so many noir characters take. Force of Evil has it all . . .
What is impressive about Force of Evil is the education one receives about the numbers game in New York in the 1940s. The racket adds a layer of complexity that makes Force of Evil seem way more sophisticated than it is — and this is a great trick. In essence Force of Evil is a story of two brothers, played by John Garfield and Thomas Gomez. The elder one, played by Gomez, has effectively ruined himself bringing up the younger prodigal brother, but Garfield has been seduced by crime, Wall Street, flash living and everything else the urban jungle has to offer.
The numbers racket is nowhere better portrayed than in Force of Evil. I can’t say if it’s an accurate portrayal, for sure, but then I can’t often say if anything in film is portrayed accurately. But we see inside the small ‘banks’ that collect the small change with which huge amounts of the population bet on which lucky number will come up in the newspaper that day — and I find these so memorable that they simply must have an element of truth to them.
It’s one of John Garfield’s many great appearances, and he’s perfect for noir — slightly diminutive, gutsy and with a sharp attitude. At school Garfield was something of a tearaway and he started acting and boxing, and he signed with Warner Brothers and was Oscar nominated for his debut, Four Daughters (1938). HUAC — which comes up all the time in noir — got Garfield however — another crime for which they shall never be forgiven. Although Garfield wasn’t a political animal at all, he had in his past had associations with left wing theatre, and that was sufficient for the craven bloodhounds of McCarthy’s pack. The talented John Garfield was officially blacklisted in 1951 for refusing to ‘name names’ and the stress of this certainly contributed to his heart attack and death, aged just 39. Like I say, HUAC will never be forgiven, and I hope it's committee members are currently smothered in volcanic ash in hell, having toasting forks thrust into and up them.
Playing Garfield’s brother is Thomas Gomez, and he is perfect. Gomez plays ‘heart condition’ to a tee, with his collar undone, always slightly out of breath and anxious — under pressure from money and his own body, Force of Evil is as much his as it is Garfield’s. When we first see Thomas Gomez, counting pennies in his apartment based rackets bank, we get the complete measure of his character — which is interestingly both angry, criminal and yet good to the core. Gomez’s never ending care of his employees is touching, but his real tour de force is a description he gives of what it is like to die of a heart attack. In a restaurant, shortly before his miserable end, he talks through the bodily sensations he feels — it’s just perfect.
As an aside, this restaurant scene in which the bank’s book-keeper sets up a kidnap and murder, is highly reminiscent of the restaurant murder central to the first Godfather film. That should be the other way round — the Godfather is reminiscent of Force of Evil — and I find it hard to believe that Coppola wasn’t thinking of this scene when he set up his own brutal restaurant murder.
In its day, Force of Evil was somewhat lost at the box office, first because Enterprise went bust while it was in post-production and it had to be sold to MGM, and maybe partly because it was released on 25th December 1948. It has to be said that Force of Evil is one of the least festive movies out there. ‘It is not the sort of picture that one would chose for Yuletide cheer,’ wrote Bosley Crowther in The New York Times on 27th December 1948.
Force of Evil did better in Great Britain, where it was paired in a double-bill with Act of Violence (Fred Zineman, 1948) and critics found it the more palatable of the two.
‘I find the second, less-advertised film in the programme superior; in fact despite a theme which I do not profess to understand, Force of Evil never for a moment lets the spectator escape its grip.’ And — ‘The passages of fast action are brilliantly done, and the kidnapping with the death of the informer, takes us back to the best days of the gangster cycle in the thirties.’ (Dilys Powell, Sunday Times, April 1949)
After the war, lighter camera equipment and the influence of Italian neo-realism (Rome, Open City, 1945 / The Bicycle Thief, 1948) meant that location work was much more popular — although often not with studio bosses, who found it harder to control productions that weren’t on the same lot as they were. A great early example was Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) which featured great photography of Santa Rosa. Indeed, rather than using extras in Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock let members of the public wander through the shots, which gave Shadow a feel of its own.
A lot of Force of Evil was shot in New York — again unusual for noir, most of which is California based — and there is a constant city feel which is lacking in so many other films, like New York Confidential and The Maltese Falcon, both of which try hard to describe the city but spend too long indoors to succeed.
Unlike many noirs which adopt a ‘random fatalist’ approach to storytelling, Force of Evil is a pretty straight up crime film, and there are no unexpected events or amazing coincidences which are very common to other noirs. There is no action as such, other than a quick shoot-out at the end, but Force of Evil has such compelling characters that it doesn’t really need it. Instead, there is a chilling message. Because in 1940s America, many gangsters sought to become legitimate by either dressing up their operations or moving them within a hair’s breadth of the law, Force of Evil seems to suggest that the gangsters represent right wing America — capitalist America too — and is suggestive of left-wing sentiment.
Leo, played by Thomas Gomez, feels that he has been running his illegal racket ‘fairly’ — but he comes to learn that of course that is a contradiction. The first shot of the film — like the first words spoken by its central character — is ‘Wall Street’ — and the crooked lawyer who works there is certainly suggestive a type that is coming to dominate the next half of the century.
This left wing take didn’t ultimately do anybody involved any favours. Director Abraham Polonsky was one of the greatest casualties of the HUAC, which incidentally seemed to be linked to noir more than any other genre. Perhaps this was because of the large amount of European émigrés who ended up directing noir thrillers — Lang, Ulmer,
Polonsky however, had always been involved in left wing causes and unions, and was into the war effort and worked in so-called ‘Black Radio’ broadcasting misinformation to Germany and interrogating captured German officers including Rudolf Hess). But still in 1951 Polonsky was labelled ‘the most dangerous man in America’ and blacklisted.
But also, the ultra-aggressive attacks of Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC bunch may have contributed to the general idea of noir’s hounded heroes, who dashed suspiciously through the shadows for over a decade, generally thrust between criminals and a rather ineffective police force. Also note that many psychoanalysts from Europe settled in California in the 1930s, and even their influence can be felt in the voiceovers, dream sequences (Stranger on the Third Floor — Murder, My Sweet) that go to form the noir canon. Even Phantom Lady is virtually explicit in its erotic ‘rape by jazz’ masturbation scene, showing a much more sexually motivated cinema.
Finally, there are of course the traditional noir shadows to be found in Force of Evil. Although some of the earlier office scenes are lit normally — and it has to be said rather poorly — there are great moments of light and dark to be had, and there is a clear taste of Edward Hopper through the middle of the film at least — Hopper’s most famous painting, Nighthawks, has a definite noir feel to it.
At the end of Force of Evil, John Garfield goes ‘down and down’ the steps beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. His narration is deadpan, masterfully delivered, and perfectly in tone. ‘It was like going down to the bottom of the world, to find my brother.’ Perhaps the city itself is the force of evil? It could be. The city is a place of traps, cons and sentimental lures which lead to dead ends, and finally the bottom of the world. For there, maybe the only way is up — or over the bridge to a brighter life. Not so for John Garfield and Abraham Polonsky, both of whom were investigated by the HUAC and blacklisted and stopped from working on Hollywood movies altogether. Think how you might feel if that happened to you in your job, especially if you are as good at it as Polonsky and Garfield were at theirs.
‘Because if a man’s life can be lived so long, and come out this way, like rubbish, then something was horrible, and had to be ended, one way or another, and I decided to help.’