Force of Evil: Noir with a Touch of Poetic Tragedy

Decades after the end of the classical noir period, it is very interesting to look back on the genre and notice how its themes gradually evolved from mere entertainment, what the studios referred to originally as gangster pictures, and which then became crime melodramas, to more serious and pressing issues; film noir is a direct product of the depression era in the 30s America, and the crises of that period are naturally reflected on its cinema and literature, literature mostly in the beginning, and as the 40s rolled by, the film adaptations came as well and revealed the dark truths of the United States of that time. While in most noir films, this harsh reality is concealed beneath crime stories, pretty ladies and smart talk, Force of Evil is one of the few exceptions that lay it bare, in its rawest, most catastrophic image, and the result is a tragic but human tale of morality that makes one of the best movies the genre has to offer.

With a rather short runtime of 79 minutes, Force of Evil’s plot moves at an exceptionally fast pace, and revolves mainly around young lawyer Joe Morse, played by John Garfield, whose boss devises a meticulous plan to take over all the number rackets in New York, one of which is owned by his own brother. As Joe tries to deal with his job and boss while also attempting to save his hardheaded brother, and as things gradually evolve into a gang war, the film treats contemporary issues of crime and corruption while offering an elaborate tragedy with poetic dialogue and a handful of biblical references. The film is an adaptation of the novel Tucker’s People by Ira Wolfert, and was the first directorial effort by Abraham Polonsky, and his sole directing credit until 1969, as he was blacklisted in the early 50s.

Now, Force of Evil’s entire exposition relies primarily on contrast and juxtaposition between the two worlds it portrays, the crime underworld of bookie joints and illegal gambling, the one Joe’s brother belongs to, and the not so different world of Wall Street, which is shown as radically more wicked. The film takes a look at the corruption in bigger corporations and judges it more harshly than small-time crooks, who earn a rather sympathetic image, symbolized by Joe’s brother, Leo, a character that Thomas Gomez plays as a clumsy, sick simpleton, perhaps a villain but displayed as infinitely more human than his enemies to show who the real villain is. Even though his activities are not exactly legal, he does possess a sense of morality that strictly guides all of his actions, and reflects poetically in his dialogue, “I am a man with heart trouble, I die almost everyday myself.”

That exact sense of morality is the entire difference between Leo and Joe, who is the primary figure representing the cruel word of Wall Street. Even though the film’s seemingly strong villains come in the form of the crime lords like Tucker and Ficco, the ones responsible for the tragic events that befall the brothers, but it is Joe that really captures the essence of the corrupt business world, not because of any evil nature, but because of his moral ambiguity. While he is not exactly without a virtue, his conscience of “the right thing” and his reluctance to actually do it is the one flaw that eventually proves fatal for him. Torn apart between his love for his brother and his own dreams, his inner-conflict is poetically concealed with his long reflective monologues, one of the best of which being the one with the romantic interest of the story, Doris, in a cab ride; a speech that feels entirely improvised and ripped from the man’s deepest parts, and a credit to John Garfield as an actor, a performance that recalls the cab ride with Marlon Brando in Kazan’s On The Waterfront (1954).

Force of Evil’s amazing script and performances are complemented by gorgeous cinematography by George Barnes, a professional from the days of silent era of the 1920s, and a moving score by David Raksin, a veteran composer who worked on many noir films including Laura, Fallen Angel and The Big Combo. The film relies mostly on its dialogue and performances and an overwhelming majority of it is merely conversations made lively by the cast’s stellar acting, but the camerawork shines on the final scene and offers one of the best and moodiest sequences in noir history; coupled with a poetic inner monologue that could even be dubbed a stream of consciousness, the camera moves to accompany Joe’s reflections that drip with pessimistic futility.  

For a genre that is known for its gloomy plots, Force of Evil is the pinnacle of how grim film noir can get, with a relevant and politically-aware story of moral conflicts and ethical dilemmas, a whirlpool of crime and corruption and one wrong choice after another, this is as tragic as noir gets.


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