Lost in the Movies: Force of Evil

Force of Evil

What exactly is the "evil" in Force of Evil? Is it the Combine, a numbers racket modeled on a corporation, which is now eating up the competition in a form that puts the term "hostile takeover" in a new light? Or is it the likes of Ficco, an old-school thug who angles in on the big bank the old-fashioned way: with a gun in hand? Perhaps it's the protagonist of the film, Combine lawyer Joe Morris (John Garfield), who is - for the most part - only indirectly involved with a clients' illegal activities but tolerates and perpetuates their crimes. He only displays a sense of morality when his middle-aged brother, Sammy (who runs a small-time numbers bank and is stubbornly ethical about his criminal enterprise) is threatened by the Combine. He arranges to have Sammy and all his employees rounded up by the cops, hoping to force him out of the business before a fixed number decimates his operation. On the way back from the jail with Sammy's secretary, a "kinda innocent, kinda corrupt" young woman, Joe turns on the charm, coyly asking her if he's evil (she isn't sure).

Joe thinks that the greatest evil is knowing what you want and perversely declining to go after it - but ultimately he (and we) will see this mentality as a wrongheaded trap. Because at the end of the film, the greatest force of evil is not any one individual but the whole rotten system. Sure, it's a racket; sure it's a criminal enterprise. But writer/director Abraham Polonsky goes out of his way to establish the Combine as not so different from major banks and corporations - characters continually repeat, "it's business!" when confronted with the charge of gangsterism. When - tune out if you don't want to know how the movie ends - Joe's brother is tossed like a sack of potatoes onto the rocks by the river, Joe has a crisis of conscience. Like Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, he wakes up to the brutality of what he's involved with and is compelled to inform on the Combine and bring it down.

The comparison to Waterfront is an interesting one, because Elia Kazan's masterpiece has always been seen as a justification for the director's own actions. Kazan, of course, informed on friends, exposing them as Communists and allowing them to be blacklisted for their politics. When Terry Malloy rats out the corrupt waterfront unions, he is scorned as a "pigeon" - and the film is taken as Kazan's celebration of the nobility of informing. Yet Polonsky - and Garfield for that matter - were themselves Leftists (Polonsky was a member of the Communist Party, while Garfield was a fellow traveler). Both were blacklisted after refusing to name names, and Garfield died of a heart attack at 39. So clearly informing does not hold the same connotations in Force of Evil as it does in On the Waterfront.

One difference is that Waterfront confronts the dilemma of informing in explicit detail. There are the men in oversized coats who badger workers on the docks, a shabby courtroom in which Terry names names. The Waterfront Commission actually has a face. Whereas Force of Evil keeps dropping the name of a governor (obviously based on Tom Dewey) who is fighting the racketeers, but we never see him. We never actually see anyone - save for some low-level cops - on the other side of the legal divide: the underworld is presented as the de facto world, with law and order merely whispered rumors - the click on the other side of a phone revealing you've been tapped, but the tappers are faceless, almost existential. Indeed, Joe's crisis of conscience is presented in existentialist terms. When he finally decides to inform, the film is over. He's made a commitment, but there's no sense of how it will play out, who he'll be talking to, or even what a world outside of this corrupt and violent one would look like.

Here Polonsky's social vision becomes clear and the film's Leftist strain comes to the forefront. Whereas Terry's decision to inform has real consequences and there is a sense that his struggle will continue after the movie's over, Joe's new resolve is largely abstract: it's the moral awakening which matters, not what he does with it. He's shed "false consciousness," seen his world with clear eyes for the first time. Much of the movie is spent in high-rise offices, where Joe is able to kid himself into thinking that he is not a criminal like those he defends. When he goes to retrieve his brother's body, the film presents him running down endless stairways, far beneath the highway and the bridge to a little lighthouse in the mud by the river, where his brother's body lies crumpled in the stones. We even hear Joe's voice on the soundtrack, telling us that as he descended, he felt like he was going to the bottom of the world.

This is Joe's consciousness manifested in visual form: eschewing his house in the clouds, he is entering into the real heart of things and seeing the world he lives in at its festering, dirty, shabby bottom. Only then, the veil lifted from his eyes, can he rescue himself and his surroundings from the endless corruption - though how this rescue will unfold is left offscreen.

Polonsky's career ended for many years when he was blacklisted and it's a pity, because this movie is beautifully photographed, popping with ideas, and stocked with great performances.
HUAC and Hollywood sometimes justified the excess of anticommunist investigation on the ground that these were powerful and influential people, who were propagating a subversive vision in their works. In no way does Force of Evil extol socialism, or even directly attack capitalism, and it would be beyond a stretch to find an explicit social message in it (indeed, It's a Wonderful Life is more left-wing on its surface).

But it does offer a fascinating peek into an American Communist's (as distinct from an American Stalinist, which Polonsky may have been but which isn't part of the dynamic here) vision of the world and the place of a person of conscience within it. In the end, despite the optimistic narration, the overwhelming sense we're left with is not of Joe's nobility, but of the force of evil which surrounds him. The heroism of a man standing against the system remains, yet Force of Evil represents a very pessimistic vision of that system which so encumbers the hero's world that he and we have little sense of what exists beyond it.


Tony D'Ambra said...

An original anaylsis, but limited by your reluctance to get off the fence. Force Of Evil and Body and Soul, where Polonsky wrote the screenplay and Garfield also stars, are not only savage leftist critiques of capitalism, but are rooted in individual responsibility for one's role in the system. In both movies, the Garfield character breaks the chains of 'false consciousness' and seeks the path of redemption.

Both films resonate deeply today, where corporate greed and the failure to take responsibility are destroying lives all over the globe.

Joel Bocko said...

Do you mean "get off the fence" in terms of recognizing the film's ideology, or in terms of endorsing it? If the former, I would say I'm confident that the movie endorses a Leftist stance but also that this is the (barely submerged) subtext and hence I don't want to overstate the film's political credentials - though its slightly buried ideology is what fascinated me most about the movie.

If you mean the former, than political engagement with the film becomes problematic. If you dig just beneath the surface you get a stringent anti-corporate, individualist ethos which certainly does resonate today (and I do mean TODAY, not just "today"). But keep digging and you get to Polonsky's Communist ideology, which I certainly do not endorse. And go further and you butt up against Stalinism which, as I acknowledged, does not at all come into play within the world of the film, but certainly was a part of Polonsky's political background and hence informed his ideological vision.

At any rate, I am generally more interested in exploring a film's ideology than endorsing/rejecting it, except in terms of how it is expressed within the film and plays into the other elements.

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