Force of Evil (1948)

 “It’s business.”

John Morse (John Garfield) is an ambitious attorney. He’s forged a partnership with crime boss Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), and they’ve devised a scheme to hijack the numbers racket in New York. They fix the liberty number, 776, for July 4th, and as a consequence, the small betting operations or ‘banks’ will be unable to pay off the claims. At this point, Tucker and John Morse plan to move in and consolidate all the small banks and take over. Unfortunately, John’s brother, Leo (Thomas Gomez) runs one of the targeted banks. This leads to some division of loyalties and a question of morality. John is eager to make his first million, and although he doesn’t care who he hurts in the process, he doesn’t want to flatten his brother.

Many films tackle the good brother/bad brother phenomenon, but in Force of Evil both brothers are on the wrong side of the law. Up until the numbers fix, John has simply worked for a crook–now he’s about to join the ranks. Older brother, Leo, runs his betting operation as a friendly small business, and his employees feel that way too. Leo’s employees are happy and comfortable with the way things are, and the rude reality of big crime muscle quickly changes all of that. John’s relentless ambition–which includes some idea that he’s helping his brother to the ‘big time’, ensures Leo’s involvement. There’s a lot going on between these brothers under the surface. Does John really want to help Leo, or is he locked into the idea that as a little brother, he has to top Leo?

Force of Evil, from director Abraham Polonsky, starts off very strongly, but the film weakens in its denouement. Still, it’s always fun to watch John Garfield–he never loses that edge of desperation, and Marie Windsor as Tucker’s wife, Edna, would make a formidable femme fatale if she could be unleashed a little more. In contrast to Edna, is the goody-two shoes girl, Beatrice Pearson (Doris Lowry). Doris represents the sort of woman John would like to be involved with, and he hints that she could save him from the life he’s leading. Fans of film noir will want to catch this one.

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Filed under Film Noir, John Garfield

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