Movies: Force of Evil

by Bob Schwartz

The overlooked movie Force of Evil (1948)  is one of the most striking creative critiques of big business in any medium. It was produced by the major, decidedly capitalistic studio MGM, and it featured one of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time, John Garfield, in what many consider his greatest performance. A standout of intelligent film noir, it has a brilliant and poetic script, written and directed by Abraham Polonsky.

Garfield is still a celebrated name in movies. Polonsky is more narrowly known, mostly among film historians. Shortly after Force of Evil, both Polonsky and Garfield were blacklisted in the craze of anti-Communist McCarthyism that swept the movie industry. Polonsky would not work again for twenty-one years.

There are two kinds of political movies. One is expressly and directly about political issues. The other kind—the one that so worried Commie-hunters—are films that look entertaining on the surface, but have a subversive and counter-cultural subtext. Force of Evil is a sort of third wave. You can watch it as a well-acted and engaging melodrama, which it is. But at some points, the politics explicitly but gracefully rises above subtext, in a way that is mostly undidactic, so it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying and appreciating the movie. It is quite a trick that Polonsky pulls off.

One of the archetypes of storytelling is the two brothers who end up on opposite sides of the law—Cain and Abel, the cop and the gangster. In this movie, both brothers are on the wrong side, just on a different scale. Leo is small-time, running a modest numbers betting business. (Numbers, sometimes called the policy racket, is an illegal lottery, long popular in low-income neighborhoods. Small bets are placed on the last three digits of the daily betting take at a race track; the odds are thus 1000 to 1.)  Joe (John Garfield), the younger brother who Leo helped put through Harvard Law, works for Ben, one of the biggest racketeers in New York.

Joe wants to make his first million, and he believes he will thanks to an ingenious plan to rig the outcome of the numbers on the Fourth of July. Since bettors often pick the numbers 776 on Independence Day, when that number comes up, the bettors will win for a change, but all the small-time numbers operators will go out of business, and be taken over by Ben. It is a strategy of forced, one-sided, underhanded mergers. (That’s right, the corrupt big business will play its dirty tricks on the slightly less corrupt small businesses—and on the innocent poor people—on the Fourth of July.)

Joe tries to save his brother by bringing him over to the bigger, richer and slightly darker side. But there are few heroes here. Events overtake characters, and in the end everyone, including a rival boss, is dead—except for Joe and the young woman he loves. While not exactly a happy ending, this outcome led some to complain that this sort of redemption was inconsistent with the rest of the movie. Maybe so, but this was made by one of the world’s biggest movie studios, and anyway, we all deserve a break in the face of this bleakness.

Bleak it may be, but Force of Evil is not some sort of dull lesson in ideology. It is a great, entertaining and rarely-seen film that deserves attention, whatever your politics.