Tomorrow (March 4) marks the occasion of what would have been actor John Garfield’s centennial birthday. To commemorate this event, Patti at They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To is hosting The John Garfield Centennial Blogathon, a four-day look at the movies and career of—if I may interject a personal note—one of my favorite movie actors. The films discussed and the participants can be found here…and the following is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution.
Four Daughters (1938) and The Sea Wolf (1941), but they also insisted on casting him in B-pictures and potboilers like They Made Me a Criminal (1939) and Dust Be My Destiny (1939)…so like his stable mates Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, Garfield fought with the studio constantly over appropriate pictures and roles. As such, a great deal of Garfy’s time at the studio resulted in suspensions when the two opposing forces (Garfield and WB) could not come to terms. In that same year, Julie declared his independence (one of the first Hollywood stars to do so) by co-founding The Enterprise Studios with David L. Loew and Charles Einfeld…and their first success was a boxing film starring Garfield called Body and Soul (1947—released by United Artists), directed by Robert Rossen.
The scriptwriter for Body and Soul, Abraham Polonsky, got his chance to sit in the director’s chair with the second of the two films
made for Enterprise: Force of Evil (1948). Polonsky also co-wrote the screenplay for the
film along with Ira Wolfert, who was the author of the novel on which the film
was based, Tucker’s People. Force
of Evil, a box office failure upon its initial release, has since come to
be recognized as a film noir classic…and in 1994, was selected the Library of
Congress’ National Film Registry for those films that are “culturally,
historically, or aesthetically significant.”
It is also my favorite John Garfield film.
Tucker’s most pressing problem arrives in the form of rival Chicago gangster Bill Ficco (Paul Fix)—who was shut out when Tucker took over the beer concession in New York City during Prohibition, but is determined to get a slice of the numbers pie. One of his goons (Stanley Prager) asks Bauer to set up a meeting between Leo and Ficco…and at this meeting, Leo is kidnapped and Bauer is shot and killed. Tucker then informs Joe—who’s furious about the news of his brother—that like it or not, he’s bringing in Ficco to alleviate the eventual heat from the special prosecutor. That’s when Ficco tells Joe that Leo is dead…and after Morse arranges for the prosecutor’s office to hear all this via a wiretapped telephone, a shootout leaves both Tucker and Ficco in the same place as Leo.
In Body and Soul, John Garfield plays a boxer who sells his soul to become a success by aligning himself with racketeers; in Force of Evil, Julie plays a lawyer who sells his soul to become a success by aligning himself with racketeers. The two films pretty much act as bookends (so if you haven’t seen either film, you’d be well advised to watch Body before Force) with Force offering what I believe is the quintessential Garfield character—an educated man of the streets who achieves redemption after having to adjust his moral compass.
Body and Soul has probably the bleaker ending of the two films. The subject matter isn’t particularly daring (corruption in the fight game—quelle surprise!) but at its conclusion, when pugilist Charlie Davis (
is threatened by his crooked manager (Lloyd Gough) after Davis
announces his intention to quit Charlie shoots back: “What are you gonna do? Kill me? Everybody
dies…” (The implication is, yes, Davis
won’t be long for this world after the Sweet Science Powers That Be get through
Force of Evil has a bit more optimism in its ending, but remains a much more fascinating film because of its bold assertion that there is no discernible difference between legitimate and illegitimate business (the movie even begins with a shot of Wall Street—which in light of recent events over the past several years makes Force quite prescient). The goon assigned to approach milquetoast bookkeeper Bauer even takes offense when Freddie spits out the word “gangsters” to him. “What do you mean, 'gangsters'?” the hood asks Bauer. “It’s business!” It also harkens back to a time when the concept of lotteries wasn’t embraced by as many people today (who justify them by touting the good they do, funding education and the like)—Joe Morse explains that the racket was called “policy” because lower income people used the nickels and dimes to play the numbers rather than putting it toward their insurance (policy) premiums.
LEO: I’ve been a businessman all my life…and honest—I don’t know what a business is…
SYLVIA: But you had a garage…you had a real estate business…
LEO: A lot you know…real estate business…living from mortgage to mortgage…stealing credit like a thief…and the garage! That was a business! Three cents overcharge on every gallon of gas…two cents for the chauffeur and a penny for me…penny for one thief, two cents for the other…well, Joe’s here now—I won’t have to steal pennies anymore…I’ll have big crooks to steal dollars for me!
I love the poetry of Polonsky and Wolfert’s script (written in blank verse and choc-a-bloc with Biblical allusions to Cain and Abel, Judas, etc.) and how the crisp, “street” dialogue is delivered by Garfield (“I didn’t have enough strength to resist corruption…but I was strong enough to fight for a piece of it”), Gomez, Roberts and the other characters to perfection. I’ll confess that while I’m not quite sure what Marie Windsor was supposed to bring to the film outside of portraying Roberts’ slut-puppy wife (who’s on the make for Garfield) the noir siren is always a welcome presence, and there’s great contributions by character faves Barry Kelly (as a “bus inspector”), Jack Overman, Tim Ryan (surprisingly effective as one of Roberts’ hoods) and Sid Tomack (as the “human calculator” hired to make sure “776” hits). The cinematography by George Barnes (who was given by Polonsky a book of Edward Hopper’s
Avenue paintings to achieve the “look” the
director wanted) is quite striking (I also marvel at how Barnes films the
characters so that they are dominated by their surroundings) and the score by
David Raksin moodily effective.