#200. Force of Evil (1948)

Got super flustered watching Force of Evil because, like with The Big Sleep and Out of the Past and Maltese Falcon, this is another film noir where I couldn’t follow the plot, couldn’t trace the threads of motive and betrayal — except it might have almost been worse than those earlier flicks because, in this case, I kept thinking I could kinda follow what was going on, like I was so close to grasping it, if only I could focus a little bit harder…

So there’s this perpetual inferiority thing and questioning. With The Big Sleep it’s easy to just laugh because it’s so ridiculously convoluted. Here, though, there’s this vibe like it all does make perfect sense, and I’m just not rising to the occasion. (Although, frankly, as a bookish 27-year-old cinephile I should have more confidence at this point about my ability to understand shit. Should maybe consider whether the director is being coherent before giving myself a hard time for not understanding.)

John Garfield, who last popped up on the List in The Postman Always Rings Twice as a pretty odious dude (which I know should be a sign of an actor’s strength, that they were persuasively odious, but his scumbaggy performance there really has left a bad taste in my mouth, and I have a hard time sympathizing with his face), and here, again, he plays a duplicitous douchebag — albeit a more esteemed stripe of douche. He’s a lawyer now, as opposed to a drifter. 

Garfield’s character, Joe Morse, is in cahoots with the mafia on a numbers racket. I’ll do my best to explain it here but, whatever I understand, I only learned it from reading essays and reviews here and there. While watching the actual movie I picked up on probably 40% of this. 

What’s happening is Joe’s a lawyer helping the mob to set up a local numbers game on July 4th that everybody in town will end up winning. Or most of them, since people tend to play the number 776 as like a joke. This will somehow end up crippling the local banks so that, going forward, the mob will be the local source for loans.

The movie achieves a great vibe of desolation and hopelessness near the end — just before ending on what’s supposed to be a redemptive note but feels totally false.

Pretty much everything having to do with Joe’s mafia involvement went over my head. But that’s fine. It’s all a MacGuffin anyway, I guess. The heart of the movie resides in the relationship between Garfield and his bookie brother, Leo (Thomas Gomez), who’s guzzling milk to combat his ulcers and he’s overweight, sweaty, flustered and he resents his brother’s duplicity, his pomposity, his self-satisfaction and fancy suits, etc. 

Joe’s tryna get Leo to close up shop the next day (July 4) so that he doesn’t fall victim to the bankruptcy that’s gonna sweep the whole racket. But he can’t reveal why he wants his brother to close up.

Tricky negotiations ensue.

Leo refuses to close up shop, claims an obligation to his customers, and so Joe does some clever shit by making sure that Leo’s place gets raided by cops that night before he can fall victim to the enormous payouts that’ll be due the next day. Leo spends the night in jail. Joe gets what he wants.

And it’s an interesting part of the story cuz it complicates our view of Joe: is this a portrait of how far he’s willing to bend over backward to save his brother’s business? Or does he not really give a shit about his brother’s well-being? Is he jsut doing this to ensure that the mob’s new racketeering thing (as TCM’s summary puts it) can be “consolidated” under his brothers’ shingle.

Staging a kidnapping.

Trickery ensues. Betrayal, death. It’s a noir. 

Force of Evil was surprisingly difficult to find. If you look for it on YouTube you’ll find a video introduction that Martin Scorsese recorded in the ’90s, talking about why the movie’s so great and how it influenced him — which, given his clout as a filmmaker and historian, you’d think this video along might be incentive enough for some streaming service to wanna host it, or for some cinephilic pirate to’ve uploaded it somewhere. It wasn’t as hard to track down as The Crowd or Ossessione, I didn’t have to order it from overseas, but no retail story had it for miles around me and I couldn’t find a dependable-looking online vendor who had it. Ultimately I just tossed $15 at a guy online who claimed to have several copies and I lucked out. He did indeed have it. 

Can’t say I’m much a fan of the movie. I think it’s well-made and smart but also kinda tedious (no point in even complaining about the convoluted plot, as it’s so germane to the genre). I definitely wanna applaud it for being it’s own kind of noir, though. The world in Force of Evil isn’t one of shadow-dwelling killers in fedoras and private dicks who know the score. It’s a frazzled lawyer who’s in over his head with a major criminal element whose cruelty he’s underestimating (I’m realizing suddenly that this might have been an influence on Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor). While it seems like the real world, as it appears in earlier film noir, takes shape in the mood of the thing, and the dauntingly cerebral plot that only masks a heartbroken simplicity of theme, the realism of Force of Evil is fairly up-front. The heroes are conflicted and succumb to their weaknesses. The criminals are self-aware, they’re not poetic about what they’re doing. They’re just brutal.

I can see it’s a special kinda movie. Just doesn’t ring my bell.


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