Sunday, March 3, 2013

The John Garfield Centennial Blogathon: Force of Evil (1948)

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.

John Garfield’s contract with Warner Bros. officially came to an end in 1946.  The studio had catapulted the stage actor to silver screen success in films like 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 Garfield 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 PeopleForce 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.

In the movie, Garfield plays Joe Morse—a street-smart attorney who supplies counsel to racketeer Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts).  Both men have been working on a plan to consolidate and control “the numbers racket”—an illegal pari-mutuel system based on racetrack results in New York City—and ambitiously turn it into a legitimate operation much like a lottery or sweepstakes.  To accomplish this, they will arrange for the number 776 to be the winner of a July 4th race, gambling that superstitious players will bet on the significant digits…and when the “banks” (those individuals who take the bets) go belly up because they can’t cover the losses, Tucker and Company will generously offer to make good by taking them over.

Joe’s brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) is the owner of one of these small banks (as Joe explains: “…they were like banks because money was deposited there—they were unlike banks because the chances of getting money out were a thousand-to-one”)…and because Joe owes him a debt of gratitude (Leo put him through law school after their parents died), he’s arranged for his brother’s bank to be spared the fate of the other small timers, who’ll be left to their own devices.  The problem for Joe is that Leo has waved off his offer to join Tucker’s operation—despite the fact that they’re essentially in the same business; Leo has nothing but contempt for Tucker while believing himself a honorable man.  When Leo spurns Joe’s entreaties for the final time, Joe arranges for his brother’s bank to be raided by the police.  The gendarmes round up Leo and his “employees,” including a young woman named Doris Lowry (Beatrice Pearson), who minutes before gave her notice to Leo but was unlucky to be caught up in the net.  Joe, out of loyalty to his brother and interest in Doris, magnanimously bails them all out in the hopes that Leo will see the light.

The raid does nothing to change Leo’s mind, and the next day when 776 is the lucky winner for bettors, his bank has been wiped out.  Leo wearily agrees to become part of Tucker’s “combine” against his better judgment, and his bank in placed in charge of the others.  But there are storm clouds on the horizon: Leo’s bookkeeper Freddie Bauer (Howland Chamberlain) doesn’t like the idea of working with “gangsters”…and when he announces his intention to quit, the combine leans on him to put such silly little notions out of his head.  The governor has also appointed a special prosecutor to crack down on the numbers racket, threatening the future of Tucker’s burgeoning “policy” enterprise.  (Bauer seizes upon this to place a phone call to the police, offering to give them information on the location and make-up of the banks in the hopes that Tucker will be forced to close down his combine soon.)  Joe will later discover that his law partner, Hobe Wheelock (Paul McVey), has been cooperating with the prosecutor by giving him the details of Morse’s involvement with Tucker.

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.

Joe, having learned that Leo’s body was dumped on some rocks by the Hudson River, runs to the spot where Leo’s corpse lies accompanied by Doris.  Seeing his brother’s remains tossed away “like an old dirty rag,” Joe decides he will cooperate with the special prosecutor and take what’s coming to him with Doris providing moral support.

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 (Garfield) 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 with him.)

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.

The bleak worldview of Force of Evil is the responsibility of director-writer Abraham Polonsky, who never made any bones about being an avowed Marxist…and that’s what got him in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.  (Polonsky wouldn’t directed another film until Tell Them Willie Boy is Here in 1969 as a result of being blacklisted.)  For Polonsky, there was no distinction between the two arenas of crime and business—since brothers Joe and Leo Morse have been so poisoned by a money-and-power-driven capitalistic society they have no other recourse but to make crime pay.  Leo (a first-rate performance from character great Gomez) is one of the most fascinating characters of any noir film: a man who truly believes that he’s doing no harm with his small-time numbers racket (he runs the operation, according to Joe, “the way another man runs a restaurant or a bar”) and that he’s far more decent than a shark like Tucker.  His devoted wife Sylvia (Georgia Backus) even insists on referring to him as a “businessman”:

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!

Polonsky often referred to Force of Evil as an “autopsy on capitalism,” and his and Wolfert’s screenplay hasn’t lost any of its audacious Marxist content: that people are the product of their environment (having been born in the slums, both Leo and Joe haven’t really been able to escape; Joe may be a little luckier but he’s still rubbing shoulders with crooks), that capitalism breeds decadence (the interior of the courthouse in certain scenes is practically indistinguishable from those set against the backdrop of Leo’s “bank” in the slums) and that the interaction of different classes ultimately results in conflict.  Polonsky sort of stopped short in addressing a solution to the corruption brought on by the capitalist system, however—preferring to fall back on the old Hollywood maxim of “Don’t sell out.”  (And really…when you think about the film afterward: Garfield’s character agrees to turn informer—which is kind of out-of-step with the actor’s sticky situation when he was called upon to testify before HUAC, too.)

Despite its flaws—I may be alone in this, but I’m not particularly enamored of Beatrice Pearson’s performance as Garfield’s love interest (Pearson made only one additional film, 1949’s Lost Boundaries, before going back to the stage)—Force of Evil remains a captivating film for me, and has been so ever since I was fortunate to catch it on Cinemax one Sunday afternoon back in the late 1990s.  It was preceded by an introduction from director Martin Scorsese (this intro was included on the VHS release of the film), who has long championed the movie and who has never been shy in admitting its influence on his own films (the “counting room” in Leo’s bank foreshadows those featured in Scorsese’s Casino), remarking that it accurately reflected “a world I knew and grew up in.” 

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 Third 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.

But at the risk of being a gushing fanboy, Force of Evil is my favorite Garfield film and I’ve made no secret of my admiration for the actor over the many years I’ve been scribbling things down in this little scrap of the blogosphere.  The street background of the characters he played in his many films couldn’t be disguised, and yet Julie always seemed to have a little more Moxie on the ball, coupled with a troubled wonderment as to whether or not he was “doing the right thing.”  In films like Out of the Fog (1941) and Nobody Lives Forever (1946), he made unlikable characters likable with a vulnerability, a boyish charm and an animal magnetism that was attractive to both men and women; in vehicles like The Fallen Sparrow (1943), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Humoresque (1946), Body and Soul, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), We Were Strangers (1949), The Breaking Point (1950) and He Ran All the Way (1951) he literally lights up the screen.  I don’t think there’s a Garfield film I don’t like…well, maybe with the exception of Tortilla Flat (1942).

Force of Evil finally got the DVD treatment in 2004 on a disc released by the now-defunct Artisan company—but last year it was resurrected by Olive Films, who secured the rights to many of the properties owned by Republic Pictures.  Republic obtained the four-picture output of The Enterprise Studios, which soon went out of business due to the bad b.o. for both Force and Joan of Arc (1948); their last release was another underrated noir, Caught in 1949.  I can’t vouch for the Olive Films release but I was kind of hoping they would have included the intro that Scorsese did for the videocassette version (in addition to Pursued, Johnny Guitar and A Double Life) to remind me of when I fell under the spell of my favorite Garfield film so many years ago.


Patti said...

Ivan, what an incredibly awesome review of what, for me, is a complicated, confusing movie. I've only seen the film once, and I rated it 3 stars, but I said in my review of it that it could have been 4 had I understood it more. (The "numbers racket" is quite over my head.) Anyhow, thanks to your review, I understand the film better and, thus, won't be as confused the next time I watch it.

For the record, I don't care a great deal for "Tortilla Flat" either, though I think Garfield was terrific in the role of Danny. For me, the only "don't like it" Garfield film is "We Were Strangers," and that is because I dislike Jennifer Jones. She ruins everything for me (Holden film, Clift films, and Cotten films to name a few).

"The Breaking Point" is my favorite Garfield film, but several others aren't far behind.

Also, just have to say...while "our Julie" was great in this role, Thomas Gomez surely was up to the task of going head-to-head with him. He was amazing.

Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. This piece was a wonderful addition to the event!

FlickChick said...

A really wonderful review and appreciation of both the film and Garfield. This was the kind of role that Garfield was made for and he is letter perfect. Too bad he was just a minute ahead of his time and never lived to catch up.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

For me, the only "don't like it" Garfield film is "We Were Strangers," and that is because I dislike Jennifer Jones.

Years ago on the blog, I jokingly created what I call The Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™--which posits that no matter how much I may dislike an actor or actress, there’s at least one movie of theirs I don’t mind watching (it’s a reference to the old maxim “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then”). There’s not a lot of love for Jennifer Jones here at TDOY but I really do like her in We Were Strangers; she gives a first-rate performance. (She’s also not bad in Beat the Devil—but that’s a discussion for another day.)

I’ve also not yet found a film that applies to Margaret O’Brien…but also, too: that is getting off the subject. If I had a little more time, I would have written something on Strangers…alas, it was not to be.

"The Breaking Point" is my favorite Garfield film, but several others aren't far behind.

I would definitely agree that Breaking Point is the actor’s best film. But best is different from favorite, so that’s why I went with Force of Evil. :-)

Caftan Woman said...

I liked your referring to the poetry in the script. Along with its strong political bent, it is what elevates it from the pack of crime pictures. That it is your favourite says a lot. I'm not sure what, but ... a lot.

Andrew Leal said...

Great review. Also, from the Sesame Street researchers end, note the waiter looking aghast while pouring coffee during a big "hit" scene:

Yes, it's Will Lee, aka Mr. Hooper before he decided to set up shop in a quieter neighborhood, where the only mobsters trafficked in hot letter O's.

Rich said...

Why do you call Garfield 'Julie'?

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Rich wondered out loud:

Why do you call Garfield 'Julie'?

I'm not the only one, but the reason is that Garfield was born (Jacob) Julius Garfinkle before he changed his name for the movies. Garfield's daughter is also named Julie, which admittedly causes some confusion.

Jeff Flugel said...

Fantastic review, Ivan! I really enjoyed not only the depth of your post, but how you juxtaposed FORCE OF EVIL with BODY AND SOUL. Glad to see you spotlight Thomas Gomez for some much-deserved praise. That guy was always good value on screen. (Love his work as gum-popping thug to Edward G. Robinson's Johnny Rocco in KEY LARGO especially).

And yours is yet another rave for THE BREAKING POINT. It seems I really need to catch up with that film - if only to compare it to my beloved TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT.

Victoria said...

I definitely haven't seen this one but, like Patti, sometimes these plots send my head spinning! If I do catch it I'll have to do a re-read of this first, so I know what's going on! It sounds like an intriguing film though.

Unknown said...

Thank you, for your wonderful review for a film, I have not yet seen. Your review of this film makes is sound like an above average film...

R. D. Finch said...

Ivan, a terrific and impressively detailed post on a film that plainly means a lot to you. I'm also a fan of Garfield; he's one of my ten favorite actors of the studio days. I think "Body and Soul" is is his best film and performance, but this one is not far behind and though his character has many familiar Garfield traits (which you describe fully), it also offers something more in that he's a kid from the slums who's risen above that world but still has his feet planted in it.

You and those who left comments made many great observations. Here are some I am in accord with: Thomas Gomez is wonderful in this film, as he was in "Key Largo" and especially "Ride the Pink Horse," both made about the same time (he got an Oscar nom for supporting actor for "Horse"). "Tortilla Flat" is a travesty of Steinbeck's novel, turning the characters into colorful Latino eccentrics, wasting Garfield, and saddling the great Spencer Tracy with perhaps the worst performance I've ever seen him give. "Force of Evil" is impressively photographed by Hitchcock regular George Barnes and stands as a very polished example of film noir; I recall Scorsese's enthusiasm from his "Journey Through American Film" documentary. Beatrice Pearson made little impression on me either.

For me Garfield's greatest period is bookended by "Pride of the Marines" and this film with "The Breaking Point" (which I'm writing on for the blogathon) thrown in a bit later. Anyway, knowing your enthusiasm for Garfield, I wasn't surprised to see you taking part in the blogathon, and you chose what I consider the most challenging of all his films to write on. A great job.

Judy said...

Must agree this is one of Garfield's greatest films and up there with 'Body and Soul' - I am very interested in the parallels you draw between the two. I love the blank verse dialogue of this film which helps to give it such a haunting quality. You have done a great job in explaining the sometimes confusing plot of 'Force of Evil' and showing how it criticises capitalism through the depiction of the 'numbers racket'. I really need to see this film again and will be referring back to this posting.

Chris Vosburg said...

Nice one, Ivan, thanks.

Late to the party (right, when wasn't I, but I'll try to make it worth the wait).

Garfield said in interview somewhere that the key to his Force of Evil character is hanging right there on Joe Morse's vest pocket-- a Phi Beta Kappa key that Garfield picked up somewhere. It functioned for Garfield as a sort of imprimatur of legitimacy for the character Joe Morse has assumed: an ivy league attorney, with a briefcase and everthing, and not some cheap thug.

Despite the fact I loved the movie, I also got the sense that it was a limited budget and shot quickly, and there were some scenes that could have done with another take (most of them involving Beatrice Pearson, by the way, who sometimes seems to be simply reciting phonetically learned syllables into her shoetops).

When I first saw the movie, I wondered hm, which Producer is she sleeping with? and wonder if you may have wondered the same thing-- having given her the name "Beatrice Roberts" in your fourth paragraph-- or do you know something we don't?

Again, thanks for the nice write-up.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

When I first saw the movie, I wondered hm, which Producer is she sleeping with? and wonder if you may have wondered the same thing-- having given her the name "Beatrice Roberts" in your fourth paragraph-- or do you know something we don't?

Nah, that's just an incident of "late-night-brain-fart." I fixed it.


That's a great review! Force of Evil was my frst Garfield film, and I enjoyed it a lo, proof that John's talent was being wasted in B-movies. I was surprised to see a Brazilian classic movie, shot six years after this, and called something like In the Way of Crime, that had a strong influence o this film.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

John Hardman said...

It's hard to picture Garfield as a middle-aged player:his acting-persona was that of a dynamic young man and that electricity that he bought to his material (which was so often otherwise mediocre) surely couldn't have lasted much longer (or, if it did remain, would have been lessened by coming from a paunchy, older man).