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While it is easy to slot it into the noir bracket, there are a lot of aspects that set Abraham Polonsky‘s “Force of Evil” apart from the crowd. Perhaps most obviously, rather than focus on the underbelly of society and all the shades of grey therein, this is a film which shows the usual noir character flaws and tendencies and superimposes them upon the high-fliers, the lawyers and the bankers.

Also, where the majority of noir thrillers and dramas are content to dwell in melodrama and escapism, this is a pretty thinly-veiled political film condemning capitalist culture. The message is clear here – the money-men, lawyers, and wall street are written alongside gangsters and hoodlums, dragging the working man down into the gutter, and to their graves, for their own gain.

I’m not opposed to political films (I adore Punishment Park), but in a drama or thriller I appreciate a little subtlety and ambiguity. Sam Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street” for example, uses satire to poke fun at right-wing sensibilities without ever preaching or becoming overbearing. Force of Evil though is a full-on assault of capitalist values. This film in itself must have been pretty strong fuel for McCarthy to blacklist Polonsky (as abhorrent as HUAC ‘s processes were).

Message-making aside, this really is a technical beauty. Shot under the watchful eye of George Barnes (DP to films such as Hitch’s Rebecca and Spellbound), light and shadow are used beautifully to contrast between the luxurious offices, and the underground gambling banks. To add further distance to usual noir style, a few location shoots pepper the film, akin to the documentary-esque shots found in Jules Dassin’s “Naked City“.

The dialogue here is pleasingly sharp and biting, with many killer lines delivered through John Garfield‘s internal narration :

“A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn’t have said.”

There are also a couple of stand-out scenes. One in particular – set to Beethoven – where we see Howland Chamberlain‘s nervous, innocent character brutally slain by rival gangsters, is a perfect harmonious marriage of emotion, image and music for about 60 seconds. This is also unfortunately where the emotional connection is lost though, as the only likeable character in the film is taken out of the picture.

The film’s pièce de résistance follows shortly after this scene. Two men against one, in a small, totally dark office, each wielding a gun. They are only feet from each other yet totally blind, no-one willing to take the first shot and give away their position. Dripping in tension, the scene is nail-bitingly exciting.

Taken individually, the aspects of the film would seem exemplary. Great dialogue, a densely plotted yet easy to follow screenplay, beautiful neo-realistic noir visuals, and a couple of great set-pieces ultimately do not add up to a masterpiece. The film’s lack of empathy due to its heavy-handed political assertions, and middle-of-the-road “safe” performances from the majority of its cast (including John Garfield) hold the film back. It’s still worth your time though, and essential for any fans of Martin Scorcese, being a film he personally champions and cites as a great influence.

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