FORCE OF EVIL (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)

John Garfield dazzles as smart, tough, egotistical, charming Joe Morse, a mouthpiece for mobster Ben Tucker, who plans on taking over the numbers racket on July 4 by making “776,” which on that day is always voluminously bet on, a winner, thereby making it impossible for numbers banks to pay off what they owe. Morse is juggling three ambitions: make his first million; protect his older brother, Leo, who stands to lose everything because he runs one of the numbers banks; help transform the system of betting into a legal lottery. Unconsciously perhaps, he is also seeking reconciliation with Leo, from whom he is estranged, partly because Leo resents Joe’s material success and rationalizes his own small-time criminality as morally preferable to Joe’s association with big-time criminals. It turns out, however, that both brothers are going down; when Leo ends up dead, Joe finds himself guiltily welded to a train of causality that prompts his move toward justice for himself (disbarment, imprisonment) and redemption.
     Adapting Ira Wolfert’s novel Tucker’s People, writer-director Abraham Polonsky takes aim at American capitalism, showing how its manipulation of greed gives many something to aspire to. The opening aerial shot looking down New York City skyscrapers, accompanied by Joe’s aspiring voiceover, is ironic as a predictor of the downward trajectory of his career and arrogance—an irony of which Joe is aware since he is speaking to us after his fall. For the moment, though, we also see people walking far below on city streets: tiny insects, vulnerable to being crushed to assist Joe’s rise, with Joe’s one-time ambition lording over them. Other shots throughout play with darkness and light to suggest the infiltration of evil in characters’ lives.
     David Raksin’s haunting score is as irreplaceable as Joe’s poetic dialogue.

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