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FORCE OF EVIL (director/writer: Abraham Polonsky; screenwriters: Ira Wolfert/from the novel Tucker’s People by Mr. Wolfert; cinematographer: George Barnes; editor: Art Seid; music: David Raksin; cast: John Garfield (Joe Morse), Thomas Gomez (Leo Morse), Marie Windsor (Edna Tucker), Roy Roberts (Ben Tucker), Beatrice Pearson (Doris Lowry), Howland Chamberlain (Freddy Bauer), Paul McVey (Hobe Wheelock), Jack Overman (Juice), Tim Ryan (Johnson), Barbara Woodell (Mary), Raymond Largay (Bunte), Stanley Prager (Wally), Paul Fix (Fico), Georgia Backus (Sylvia Morse), Bert Davidson (Lawyer); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bob Roberts; MGM; 1948)
“One of the major themed films of the ’40s.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Based on the novel Tucker’s People by Ira Wolfert. It is Abraham Polonsky’s debut as a director and results in a stylish B&W film noir that is one of the major themed films of the ’40s. It sheds a light on the social and moral evils of the time, as it centers on the numbers racket and the mutual guilt of two brothers at opposite poles but both caught in the same web of corruption. It makes the point that corruption is part of the capitalist system at any level.

Joe Morse (John Garfield) is the smooth top-flight lawyer for the syndicate head Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), while 50-year-old brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) gave up his chance to be a lawyer and went to work to support his younger brother when their parents died and now operates a struggling small-time independent numbers operation (not connected with the syndicate) in a slum apartment in the same neighborhood he was raised.

Joe’s search for ‘easy money’ leads to a conflicting situation with his stubborn brother Leo who refuses to join the syndicate and has come to deeply resent his younger brother for not taken advantage of his opportunities to be strictly legit. The situation comes to a head on July Fourth, as the 776 number will be fixed to win in order to break the small-time number bankers in an attempt to artificially legalize the number racket and to consolidate all the operations in the hands of Tucker. Joe is concerned that Leo will lose all his money because of his refusal to join the syndicate and he takes some radical actions to save his older brother. It leads to more violence as gangster rival Fico (Paul Fix) tries to muscle into the operation with thuggery. It becomes apparent that the underworld has tainted the lives of the brothers beyond repair, and that Joe has miscalculated his position in life. Also making things rough for the syndicate are the actions of the new special prosecutor appointed by the NY governor, who taps the phones of Tucker and Joe and acts on insider tips to bust the number banks.

There’s also a love story developed of good working-class girl Doris Lowry, Leo’s secretary, attracted to the fast-living Joe, in a relationship of opposites that was doomed from the start.

The film’s last scene is allegorical, as it shows how far down the Garfield character has descended as he discovers his personal hell when walking down a stairway to retrieve the body of a loved one strewn on the ocean rocks.

Polonsky’s unpretentious, lyrical film is steeped in terse dialogue, mythic family drama and pungent social criticism symbolically reflecting the dangers of the McCarthy witch hunts. Its bleak mood suggests how prevailing corruption is even for those smarties who think they are only rightfully taking advantage of the opportunities available in the loopholes in the capitalist system.

John Garfield and Abraham Polonsky were suspect for their leftist political views, as Polonsky was blacklisted in 1951 and it wasn’t until twenty years later that he had a chance to direct again–“Tell them Willie Boy is Here.” This film was at a time when the Red Scare was peaking. The controversial film opened to poor box-office during Christmas week of 1948 (not a time of season to open such a dark film). Eventually the film became recognized as a critical success and is now considered a cult favorite.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”