Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, Marie Windsor, Howland Chamberlain, Roy Roberts, Paul Fix, Stanley Prager, Barry Kelley, Paul McVey, Beatrice Pearson
Written by: Abraham Polonsky, Ira Wolfert, based on a novel by Ira Wolfert
Directed by: Abraham Polonsky
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 78
Date: 12/25/1948

Force of Evil (1948)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Number's Up

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After scoring a success, and an Oscar nomination, for his first produced screenplay Body and Soul (1947), Abraham Polonsky sat in the director's chair for this low-budget "B" movie, produced with many of the same cast and crew as the previous film. Clearly, Polonsky had what it took to make a movie's visuals match the poetry of his words. Force of Evil is a masterpiece, usually lumped in with films noir of the period, but unique.

John Garfield stars as Joe Morse, a crooked lawyer who is involved in the New York City "numbers racket." He sets up a plan to take over the banks that support the racket. This includes a smaller bank run by his older brother, Leo (Thomas Gomez). Joe truly wants to help Leo, but Leo doesn't support Joe's tactics and insists on doing things by the book. Joe also meets Leo's trusted secretary, Doris (Beatrice Pearson), which complicates matters.

Things actually get very complicated, and strangely enough, Polonsky unfolds most of it in rooms, with people talking. There's hardly any action in this thriller, except for a few choice scenes at the end. But each scene crackles with energy, whether it's Joe and Leo going head-to-head, or Joe getting a warning from a nasty femme fatale (Marie Windsor) that his phone is tapped.

Despite all the interiors, Polonsky attacks the screen with an expert's mastery. His casting choices, close-ups and staging all contribute to a feel of suspense and unease. For example, one of Leo's employees is claustrophobic; when the police raid his bank, Leo bargains for the man to get a ride in the front seat of the police car. When the police raid a second time, no dialogue is necessary to know what's going on; all Polonsky needs is a close-up of the claustrophobic man, who will get no such special treatment this time.

Polonsky's dialogue is probably the most notable thing here. According to Martin Scorsese -- who recorded a brief introduction for this film for an earlier VHS release -- it may even have been written in "blank verse." In terms of writer/directors of crime movies, Polonsky has only one possible peer: Quentin Tarantino. But unfortunately, Polonsky's debut film was not a success, and he was blacklisted soon after. He officially returned to screenwriting 20 years later with Madigan (1968) and directed a second time with Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969). Polonsky's career is therefore one of the great treasures -- and the great shames -- of American movie history.

Olive Films has released a wonderful new must-see Blu-ray of this still-underrated classic. The only extra is the aforementioned Scorsese intro.
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