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Force of Evil (Blu-ray Review)

6 Aug, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars John Garfield, Beatrice Pearson, Thomas Gomez, Marie Windsor.

Though it’s something you can effortlessly intuit all by yourself, Martin Scorsese has long acknowledged the profound influence of this superlative 1948 film noir toughie on Mean Streets, Goodfellas and (in its treatment of moral responsibility between cantankerous brothers) Raging Bull. And the director does so here as well in a short intro carried over from a long ago Republic VHS release, though this snappy new transfer has nothing remotely “VHS” about it. Like Olive’s concurrent release of Body and Soul, is a model of how urban-oriented black-and-white ought to look.

Launched by a most effective voiceover by lead John Garfield, the subject is the numbers racket — though according to the 1940s edition of the AFI Catalog, Hollywood Production Code cretin Joe Breen ruled against using the word “racket” in the title (who knows, and why even ask?), not that Force of Evil isn’t to the point. Garfield plays a shady New York attorney whose associates are planning to rig it so that the number “776” will come up on July 4th — turning a standard sucker bet into a rude mass payoff by the back-store “banks” that have taken the wagers. As a result they’ll go bankrupt, and the string-pulling vultures will come in for the plucking and an immediate takeover — including, possibly, our lawyer’s coronary-prone older sibling (Thomas Gomez in his career performance). To this end, our younger (prodigal) brother tries to cajole estranged Gomez to close down his operation — like today (July 3rd). But the blueprint doesn’t quite work as constructed.

Until he got another shot 20 years later with the Robert Blake-Robert Redford Western Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, this most un-MGM-like release (a distribution pickup, in fact) was famously the only film directed by Body and Soul writer Abraham Polonsky before shortly thereafter becoming one of the Blacklist’s most severe casualties and greatest losses. There was always something different about Polonsky’s dialogue, and Scorsese (in his introduction) quotes one critic who was amazed that the actors are almost speaking blank verse here. But Polonsky had a visual sense for angles and when to go in for a close-up — and if the contribution here is that of editor Arthur Seid (who almost exclusively was a ‘B’-movie and TV practitioner), Polonsky had to be savvy enough to shoot the raw material. Very few MGM non-musicals of the era had this kind of visual sense — and by the way, David Raksin’s score is a grabber from Leo the Lion’s opening roar.

In addition to featuring one of the definitive John Garfield performances, Evil was the first of only two movies to feature the ethereal Beatrice Pearson (the other is the following year’s now “I Passed for White” drama Lost Boundaries — which is quite obscure these days, though I’m pretty sure it made the New York Times’ 10-best list in ’49). In terms of screen work, Pearson basically fell off the face of the Earth not too long after this picture’s release, though I’m not sure how many actresses could have read Polonsky’s brand of dialogue so effectively. She plays an innocent but head-on-straight secretary loyal to the boss she serves (Gomez) — and for her dedication, she gets two arrests on her record. To quote Andrew Sarris noted in his landmark The American Cinema: “Force of Evil stands up under repeated viewings as one of the great films of modern cinema, and Garfield’s taxicab scene with Beatrice Pearson takes away some of the luster from Kazan’s Brando-Steiger tour de force in On the Waterfront.” She’s prettier than Steiger, that’s for sure, and I would say that with the exception of co-equal Cathy O’Donnell in Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night, Pearson delivers the most luminous “nice girl” portrayal of the era. In other words, a heart-melter.

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