Sunday, August 12, 2007

Force of Evil

Directed by Abraham Polonsky
Written by Abraham Polonsky, Ira Wolfert (from his novel)
Starring John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, Marie Windsor, Howland Chamberlain
IMDB Entry

The Hollywood Blacklist had many innocent victims. Abraham Polonsky may not have been innocent, but he was a victim, and I think films are weaker because of it.

Polonsky (not to be confused with Roman Polanski) had some success as a writer of films, most notably the boxing drama Body and Soul, and decided he wanted to direct. This was still unusual in 1940s Hollywood (Preston Sturges had done it, but few others), but Polonsky took his shot with the gem of a film, Force of Evil (Not to be confused with Touch of Evil)

The movie is the story of an upheaval in the numbers racket.  John Garfield (not to be confused in any way with Alan Garfield) plays Joe Morse, a lawyer for an organized crime group. The group is working to take over the numbers racket.  Their plan:  causing the number 776 to be the winner on 4th of July.  Bettors always played that number very heavily on that day, so if it came in, it would be too much for many bookies to pay off.  Those who didn't join the syndicate would not be able to cover their bets, and either would have to borrow from the syndicate, or go out of business.  Joe is responsible for trying to get bookies to join the syndicate beforehand.

John Garfield and Thomas GomezThe fly in the ointment is Joe's brother, Leo (Thomas Gomez), a small time bookie who doesn't want to fall in with the big time crooks. Joe has to convince Leo before July 4, and Leo -- an honest bookie who will pay everything he owes, even if it ruins him -- refuses.

Polonsky made no bones about being a Communist, and the film is clearly an allegory about how big business crushes the small competitor. But the film works not because of that, but because of the relationship between the two brothers.

Leo is the moral one in the film, while Joe learns too late that some things come at too great a price.  Thomas Gomez is terrific in the role.  He was a well traveled character actor, best known as one of Edward G. Robinson's henchmen in Key Largo, and this is a performance to savor of a man who wants to stand up for what is right.

John Garfield was good (as he usually was) as Joe, one of his best performances as a cynical man who learns that cynicism isn't good enough.  Garfield was a vastly underrused actor of his time, a leading man type who was typecast as criminals and never really got the breakthrough role where he could become a major star.  The movie he first starred in,They Made Me a Criminal, pretty much describes

Polonski's Communist leanings did not sit well once the Red Scare began.  He refused to name names and was thus blacklisted for almost 20 years.  He did some film work -- writing a screenplay or two with a front, directing at least once without being credited -- but didn't show up officially until Tell Them Willie Boy is Here in 1969.  Once again, he showed his revolutionary credentials (the movie deals with the treatment of Native Americans), but the film was much more heavyhanded. 

As for John Garfield, he truly was one of the innocent victims.  Never a Communist, but socially very liberal, his politics caught up with him in the red scare and he found it hard to get work.  The stress contributed to his dying of a heart attack at the age of 39.

The film has been rediscovered and the allegory may seem a bit obscure, but as a drama, it's still as good as ever.

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