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Force of Evil

John Garfield breaking into a safe.
May 21, 2022 - 7:30 pm

News of the Day, Vol. 20, No. 271

U.S., 5/5/1949

Force of Evil

U.S., 1949

Following his release from Warner Brothers in 1946, star John Garfield (The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946) co-founded Enterprise Productions, Inc., with an eye towards making films reflecting the realities of society. The independent studio’s first big hit was Body and Soul (1947, Robert Rossen), which garnered a Best Actor nomination for Garfield and a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Abraham Polonsky at the 20th Academy Awards. The two would immediately pair again to adapt Ira Wolfert’s 1943 journalistic novel about racketeering titled Tucker’s People. The resulting feature, Force of Evil, marked Polonsky’s directorial debut.

The hard-hitting film concerns an unscrupulous lawyer Joe Morse (Garfield), who, by consolidating a numbers racket, has the opportunity to partner with ruthless gangster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). As a fitting backdrop for this tale of moral corruption, Polonsky referred his production team to the stark New York paintings of Edward Hopper to establish a noir-like atmosphere. Accordingly, the film’s cinematographer George Barnes (Spellbound, 1945) and Art Director Richard Day (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940), utilize the film’s New York City locations to full effect, mirroring the brooding sense of doom experienced by the story’s anti-hero.

In the essential book Dark City, Eddie Muller praises Force of Evil’s astute portrait of American society, stating, “Its prescient dissection of the ground shared by free enterprise and racketeering invites present-day viewers to connect the dots between Ben Tucker and the corporate raiders and merger pirates of contemporary Wall Street.” The tense cinematic indictment of monopoly capitalism did not appeal to audiences of its time, and the film was a box office failure. Sadly, Enterprise Productions would fold in 1949, and the careers of Garfield, Polonsky (and Rossen) would fall victim to the Blacklist. Today, the film is recognized as a classic, and was named to the National Film Registry as a culturally historic work in 1994.

Todd Wiener

DCP, b&w, 78 min. Production: Enterprise Productions, Inc. Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Producer: Bob Roberts. Director: Abraham Polonsky. Screenwriter: Abraham Polonsky. Based on the novel Tucker’s People by Ira Wolfert. Cinematographer: George Barnes. With: John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, Beatrice Pearson, Roy Roberts, Marie Windsor.

Restoration funding provided by The Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. Restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation. Laboratory services provided by Roundabout Entertainment, Inc., Audio Mechanics. Special thanks to Paramount Pictures Archive, Ignite Films B.V.