Dammit, Joe. What have you done? Like Dorris said, you’re an evil man. “Evil,” huh. That’s not a word someone throws around too easily, ‘cept when they’re talking about some crooked ass politician or a villain in a comic book. But you, Joe Morse, you’re just a lawyer with his hands in a few pockets. Does that make you evil? Maybe, Joe. Maybe.
Filmmaker Abraham Polonsky first worked with actor John Garfield (The Postman Always Rings Twice) on the boxing film Body and Soul. For his directorial debut (and only film for over 20 years), Polonsky adapted Ira Wolfert’s novel Tucker’s People – a strongly researched journalistic tale of the illegal numbers racket. In the hands of Polonsky, Force of Evil transcended the novel’s concentration on this one crime and instead held up a mirror to the entire system. Unlike most film noirs that chart the corruption and demise of one man, Force of Evil broadly looks at the destruction of an entire organization, and the cops and politicians that surround it – making it a wholly significant American film and a major film noir.
Garfield plays Joe Morse, an opportunistic Wall Street lawyer with clients on both sides of the law. He’s selling out his expertise to Tucker (Roy Roberts), an influential racketeer who’s got enough cops and politicians in his pocket to grease a drawbridge. Tucker runs an illegal lottery, better known as a “numbers racket,” which Joe is in the process of making legit. Part of his plan is to bankrupt the city’s many “policy banks” that hoard the betting money while suckers keep dishing it out. Joe and Tucker are rigging the big game on July 4, so the policy banks will go broke paying out everyone who played 776.
One of these banks is run by Joe’s brother, Leo, played by the mighty Thomas Gomez (Ride the Pink Horse, Phantom Lady). Leo’s small time and spends most days sweating it out in his tiny office, trying not to have a heart attack. His bum ticker is a major problem for him, as you’ll notice when everyone is constantly telling him to “take it easy.” Joe and Leo aren’t exactly close either. Apparently Joe brushed off his brother after their parents died. So when Joe comes to Leo to warn him about bankrupting the policy banks (including his), the big man doesn’t want to listen.
Caught in the middle is Leo’s young secretary Doris (Beatrice Peterson), who Joe takes a liking to. He does awkward shit to impress her like throw a large bouquet of flowers in her face and pick her up and put her on a mantle like a trophy. Then there’s Tucker’s wife, Edna, played with steam to spare by the great Marie Windsor (The Sniper). Much like Joe and Leo are opposites, Doris and Edna are very much polar presentations. Once Joe begins to feel the weight of his corruption and the corner he’s backed his own brother into, Edna is there to soothe his worry and reassure him that soon everything’s gonna be roses. Both female figures in Force of Evil take a backseat to the males though. While Windsor is strong as always, Edna doesn’t really feel like a thorough femme fatale. Her seduction does little to steer Joe back into Tucker’s camp.
There’s an obvious parallel here between the small-time policy banks and Tucker’s major syndicate wanting to buy them out, creating his own monopoly once the lottery is made legit. The analogy between the numbers racket and good old corrupt American capitalism is tough to miss. In Force of Evil, human life is reduced to numbers in an accounting ledger. This correlation is reinforced by the NYC locations, with its skyscrapers poetically dwarfing Joe and Leo through their meeting with doom. The final minutes in which Joe has to “descend” the city in search of his brother’s corpse, through the Palisades and beneath the Washington Bridge, is particularly strong in its metaphor.
Force of Evil was one of the first films to dress its crooks up in suits and polish their shoes. While it was dismissed as another B-noir upon its release, Polonsky had more layers in mind for his story. The only hiccup in my is Joe’s abrupt shift in attitude at the film’s end. It’s very out of character for this opportunistic crook to all of sudden bend over for the police, but filmmakers had much less control over their projects back then. I’m sure the studio gave Polonsky no choice but to have Joe repent. Besides that one blemish, Force of Evil stands as an allegorical classic that would go on to influence the likes of Martin Scorsese and Coppolla.
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