Force of Evil


'Force of Evil' is the quintessential 'film noir.' Based on the novel 'Tucker's People' written by Ira Wolfert, the 1948 classic was directed by CP'er Abraham Polonsky, who shared screenwriting responsibilities with Wolfert. It depicts the moral dilemmas facing Joe Morse (John Garfield, another CP'er), a mob lawyer who exploits his brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) in an elaborate plot to bring small-time numbers operators under the control of a newly legalized big-time operation.


Although not specifically articulated as such, the film is also about a very New York milieu of Jews operating on the fringes of the law. While the more neutral name 'Morse' is used, the characters are really the 'Horowitzes' or 'Kaplans' drawn from the early childhood memories of men like Polonsky, who must have observed numbers runners in their New York City neighborhoods. As Alan Wald pointed out in a recent lecture in NYC, many of the 'film noir' auteurs were New York Jews with direct or indirect connections to the criminal underworld in the 1920s, who then later developed ties to the radical movement.


Remnants of this milieu were familiar to me growing up in the Borscht Belt in the 1950s, a resort area in upstate New York. The Cohens, a family from my village, were typical. The father Bushkie was always involved in one slightly shady money-making scheme or another, from selling illegal fireworks to setting up a gambling casino in Haiti. One son Danny, arrested during a bank robbery in an attempt to get money to pay off gambling debts, was a victim of a mob hit on the steps of a tenement in Little Italy in his twenties. Meanwhile, his brother Matty was an outspoken defender of socialism. While Bushkie was a would-be criminal, his wife Mary was a Communist sympathizer. So the kids absorbed influences from each parent.


The plot of 'Force of Evil' has the momentum of a runaway train. Leo Morse runs a numbers bank that is among the targets of Joe Morse's ambitious boss, who wants to get a monopoly on the highly profitable operations. Although Leo Morse is outside the law himself, he wants to steer clear of the mob that his brother works for. His operation is very much a mom-and-pop affair and all of his employees feel affectionate toward him. Although not specifically spelled out, the implication is that monopoly capitalism has a tendency to run roughshod over everything in its path. In one gripping scene after another, Joe tells his brother that it is an inevitable process that can't be reversed. The best he can do is go along with it and try to get a piece of the action.


In less than three years, people like Garfield and Polonsky would be blacklisted out of the film industry. During Congressional hearings in Hollywood in 1951 Polonsky was called the 'most dangerous man in America' by Rep. Harold Velde. During the time he was blacklisted, Polonsky often wrote screenplays using a 'front'. He finally began writing again under his own name with 'Tell Them Willie Boy is Here', a pro-American Indian film made in 1969.


In a January 20, 1999 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Polonsky was asked, "Your movies often paint a dark view of relationships and morality. Why?" He replied:


"'I look at it as reality. When I was a boy, thieves broke into my father's pharmacy, which during the Depression was one of the few places where you could legally sell alcohol by prescription. The night after a new shipment of liquor arrived, someone stole all the alcohol and cocaine. My father was very upset because if he reported the robbery, he'd have to deal with the Treasury Department. But there were three old Italian men who hung around his shop, sitting and talking and taking their hats off when an Italian funeral passed by. They heard about my father's troubles and several days later, when we opened up the store, miraculously all the liquor and drugs were back in their rightful place. They said that the person responsible for the theft wanted to come and personally apologize for causing any trouble. My father said, 'That's not necessary, but if he really wants to, I'm here all week.' And they said, very apologetically, 'Actually you'll have to wait till he gets out of the hospital.' He laughs. And that's what introduced me to how politics and relationships really work in America.'"


Until his death on October 26, 1999 at the age of 1988, Polonsky remained very involved with writing screenplays, teaching about film and speaking out about the political issues facing Hollywood. For example, he was on the front lines of the protests against presenting a Lifetime Academy Award to informer Elia Kazan. In a typical example of his hard-bitten wit, Polonsky told a reporter that on the night of the Oscars, "I'll be watching, hoping someone shoots him. It would no doubt be a thrill in an otherwise dull evening."


Two days before his death, he went to an academy screening of "The Fight Club." He hated the movie so much that he stormed out after an hour, stopping as he walked up the aisle to grab the arms of people he knew, saying, "What the hell are you doing, watching this piece of expletive! You should get up and walk out too!"


John Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1913. Garfield came out of the left-leaning Group Theater. During the witch-hung, "He said he didn't know any Communists . . . it was very brave of him," says Polonsky. "The neighborhood he came from, you didn't snitch." Garfield died of a heart attack during the 1950s. Most agree that the stresses of being blacklisted led to his death.