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USA 1948
Directed by
Abraham Polonsky
80 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Force Of Evil

Written and directed by the HUAC blacklisted Abraham Polonsky, Force Of Evil is a striking film with an unusual, almost literary, approach to its story.  In a strong performance, John Garfield plays an ambitious, hard-nosed lawyer, Joe Morse, working for a big-time numbers racketeer (Roy Roberts). His weak spot however is his devotion to his loser brother, Leo (Thomas Gomez), who runs a small-time gambling operation. Joe’s attempts to help his brother leads him to question his allegiances, even more so when he meets Leo’s girl-next-door secretary (Beatrice Pearson).

Polonsky only directed a handful of films in a career which stretched into the 1980s and this was his first. It has, as a consequence a certain untutored originality, which sets it apart from the comparable, smoothly realized studio film noir fare of the time. This manifests in some unusual interpretation of the style’s signature lighting arrangements and framings but more especially in its atypically literary dialogue. Unlike many of Hollywood’s blacklisted, Polonsky was a committed Marxist and his script is determined by his clear moral priorities, giving it an allegorical and at times somewhat staged quality with characters uttering lines of an improbably penetrating nature as it depicts Joe’s journey through the underworld’s (Mammon's) moral sink. At times this produces some rather inconsistent, even incongruous behaviour by the characters but this only adds to the film’s idiosyncratic poetics.

Whether or not Force Of Evil is one of the great film noirs, as some have claimed, or. even as the cover of the DVD that I watched had it, quoting Andrew Sarris "one of the great films of the modern American cinema", is a highly debatable point, particularly given its rather pat "social conscience" ending,  but it is certainly an oddity worth checking out. If there is one ground for criticizing the film, it is that there just isn’t  enough screen time given to the wonderful Marie Windsor who plays a silky gangster’s moll to perfection.

FYI: Garfield, whose political inclinations also came under the scrutiny of the HUAC, was apparently responsible for the casting of Pearson, an actress, introduced to the film-going public by this film, as the credits proudly announce, but who made only one more film before returning to the world of theatre.




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