It is a sad fact of life that many of the best films noir are not widely known to the general public. Among my favourite films noir is Force of Evil, a 1948 movie directed by sceenwriter Abraham Polonsky. Today Force of Evil is only know to movie buffs and film noir devotees. This is a grave injustice, as it is one of those great films with which everyone should be familiar.
Force of Evil stars John Garfield as unethical lawyer Joe Morse. Among Morse's clients is powerful mobster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), who wants total control of the city's number rackets. Morse not only defends Roberts, but become his partner in the numbers racket. This is perhaps unfortunate, as his older brother Leo runs his own, smaller numbers racket. It is this conflict which propels the plot of Force of Evil forward (for those of you wondering what a numbers racket is, it's essentially an illegal lottery where the better tries to match three or four numbers which are drawn the next day or next week).
What sets Force of Evil apart from many similar films is that it works on many levels. It is a gritty crime drama with more than enough action and violence to satisfy devotees of the genre. At the same time, it is also a powerful melodrama in which the protagonist is conflicted between his loyalty to his powerful employer and the love he feels for his older brother. Above all else, what makes Force of Evil superior to many films noir is that it is extremely realistic. The movie goes into detail on the operation of the numbers racket, so central to the film's plot. In fact, it goes into so much detail that by the time one is finished watching the movie, he or she will know all about the numbers racket, including its terminology. Adding to the film's realism is the fact that much of the film was shot on location in realist style. While a very realistic movie, Force of Evil also features dialogue that borders on poetic and includes frequent allusions to the Bible. It is a very literate movie.
Force of Evil was the first film ever directed by Abraham Polonsky, who had previously written the screenplay for the classic boxing film Body and Soul. Polonsky also co-wrote the film's screenplay with Ira Wolfert. Sadly, Polonsky's film career would be disrupted when he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951. Blacklisted in Hollywood, he was forced to write movies under a number of pen names, most of which have never been revealed. It would not be until Madigan in 1968 that he would once more be given credit on a movie. He would not direct another movie until 1969, when he directed Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.
Force of Evil was hailed by no less than Martin Scorsese as a forgotten masterpiece. He also said that it was the first film he ever saw which featured "...a world he knew and saw." Force of Evil is simultaneously a realistic film shot on location and dealing with crime in a realistic fashion, and a movie centred on the tragic relationship between two brothers. I dare say that everyone could find something to like in this movie, whether they are film noir buffs or they do not really care for film noir. Quite simply, Force of Evil is a film which transcends genre.