Updated: Aug 8
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
John Garfield, left, gives one of his finest performances as Joe Morse, an unscrupulous attorney who tries to set things right with his estranged brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) by having him cash in on a scheme to take over New York’s numbers racket then go legit.
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“FORCE OF EVIL”
Blu-ray, 1948, unrated, adult themes, violence Best extra: The commentary with critic and historian Imogen Sara Smith
FIRST THINGS FIRST. Hats off to and three cheers for Kino Lorber for adding “Force of Evil” to the must-see list of every self-respecting film noir fan. It should have been there all along, but sometimes your radar goes kaput and even a classic slips by. And make no mistake, it’s a classic, right up there with “Murder, My Sweet,” “The Killers,” “Out of the Past,” “Thieves’ Highway,” and other gems of the 1940s. Pegging it as a film noir, though, may not do “Force of Evil” full justice. In his introduction, Martin Scorsese, a longtime champion of the film, cites its influence on his pictures “Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull,” and “Goodfellas,” adding that it’s “a moral drama on a mythic scale.” And in her expansive, engaging commentary, critic/historian Imogen Sara Smith says the relationship between the two brothers – Cain and Abel are referenced twice – “is the emotional core of the movie, the real love story.”
(1) ”Force of Evil,” which premiered Christmas Day, 1948, in New York City, opens with a mesmerizing shot looking into the canyons of Wall Street. (2-4) Morse makes a call on a phone he keeps locked in his desk then meets with his client, crime boss Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), to discuss the scheme they’re springing on July 4th.
She also says that Abraham Polonsky’s (screenwriter, “Body and Soul”) masterful directorial debut combines heightened poetic language, a lush, complex score, and (Edward) Hopper-esque visuals to create a hybrid of extreme stylization and visceral realism. A victim of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt, Polonsky didn’t return to the director’s chair until 1969’s “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.” (He co-directed “Oedipus Rex” in 1957.) John Garfield (“The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Body and Soul”) gives one of his finest performance as Joe Morse, an unscrupulous lawyer who comes up with a scheme to help his crooked boss, Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts, “My Darling Clementine”), take over New York’s numbers racket: When a popular bet – 776, because it’s placed on July 4th – creates too many winners to pay, every “policy” bank will have to sell. In the opening voiceover, Morse boasts that he’s going to make his first million the next day. Just one problem: His estranged older brother Leo (Thomas Gomez, “Key Largo”) runs one of the banks and wants no part of Joe’s offer for him to take advantage of the cheat and go legit. See, Leo sacrificed so Joe could attend law school, but he’s not just repulsed by his immorality, he feels a responsibility to his employees and the people who bet with him. He dismisses Joe’s attempt to square things as blackmail. In the meantime, Joe takes an interest in Leo’s innocent secretary Doris Lowry (Beatrice Pearson, “Lost Boundaries”), whose opinion of his conduct leads him to reflect on his choices. The film ends on a note of redemption, though it takes a tragedy for Joe to achieve it.
(1) A tight shot in a tenement hallway puts the focus on the film’s superb expressionistic lighting. (2) Joe meets with Leo at the “bank” he runs to offer a way out. (3) Leo confers with his secretary, Doris Lowry, played by first-timer Beatrice Pearson.
(1-5) Joe asks one of his connections to send the police to bust up Leo’s small-time operation, hoping it will pressure him into taking his offer to get out. It doesn’t.
VIDEO/AUDIO “Force of Evil” (1.37: 1 aspect ratio) was remastered from last year’s 4K restoration by Paramount Pictures, UCLA, and The Film Foundation, with funding from the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation, and from the opening frame, a mesmerizing shot looking into the canyons of Wall Street, it delivers in every possible way. Detail is exceptional – in the sweaty close-ups, crowded tenements, and gilded offices – and the razor-sharp contrasts and deep blacks give full run to the expressionistic lighting by cinematographer George Barnes, an Oscar-winner for “Rebecca.” There isn’t a blemish anywhere. Even though it’s routed to the center speaker and is in mono, the DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track is surprisingly full. The heightened poetic language couldn’t be clearer and you can hear every nuance in the score by David Raksin (“Laura”). EXTRAS Smith, who’s also a Criterion Collection regular, doesn’t miss a trick. She gives as much time to the ins and outs of the film as she does to “Tucker’s People,” the 1943 novel by Ira Wolfert adapted by the author and Polonsky. Using the numbers game as an allegory for the greedy, corrupt capitalist economy, it was based on a Thanksgiving Day scheme by crime boss Dutch Schultz to hijack the numbers racket. Polonsky didn’t just pare down the scope of the novel, she says, he downsized the screenplay until it was “remarkably spare and economical.” As for the visuals, Barnes didn’t have a lot of experience with film noir, so when Polonsky told him the test footage was “too pretty,” he asked the director to tell him what he wanted. He gave him a book of paintings by the great American realist Edward Hopper. Smith points out the direct homages throughout the movie. She also discusses the precise sets by art director Richard Day, who had worked with Erich von Stroheim and John Ford, and how they define the characters’ economic circumstances. Her commentary is one of the best. The only other extra is Scorsese’s intro. “Force of Evil,” which he introduced to Francis Ford Coppola and Robert De Niro, and has screened at New York University, is one of the first films he remembers seeing that reflected his boyhood in Queens. (The other is “On the Waterfront.”) “It’s a classic of American cinema,” he says, “a film that deserves its proper attention.” Kino Lorber has done its part. It’s your turn now. – Craig Shapiro
(1) Sid Tomack, center, only has one quick scene, but he’s outstanding as Two & Two Taylor, the math savant who sets the scheme in motion. (2&3) Joe takes an interest in Doris then rebuffs Tucker’s wife Edna (Marie Windsor) when she puts the make on him. (4-5) Morse begins to question the choices he’s made while Leo tells his skittish bookkeeper Freddie Bauer (Howland Chamberlain) that he can’t quit the operation.
(1-3) Things quickly go awry after Leo refuses to go along with Joe’s plan. (4-6) When Leo goes missing, Joe scours the city looking for him. His desperate search ends at the river.