Cinematic Taste Buds

Notes On 'Force of Evil' with Martin Scorsese

A battleground of moral conflict

John Garfield in Force of Evil
John Garfield in Force of Evil

Last week Criterion released the Blu-ray edition of Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront and as impressive as the film (and all it's accompanying accoutrement) is, I zeroed in on a film Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones continued to reference in their discussion of Waterfront, Abraham Polonsky's 1948 feature Force of Evil.

Starring John Garfield and Thomas Gomez, the film centers on Joe Morse (Garfield), a lawyer who turns to the numbers racket to make his first million. Problem is, the plan he and his associates have in store is going to put Joe's brother, Leo (Gomez) out of business and perhaps worse. Leo is a small-time operator in the racket and Joe's plan to consolidate and put out of business these small timers is going to put a kink in the family relationship, even though there isn't much of a relationship to begin with.

Scorsese and Jones' conversation turned toward Force of Evil when discussing the performances and style of acting in On the Waterfront, which was when he says:

"The real film that was that pointed the way for that style and that change in the depiction of the world, for me, in cinema, was Force of Evil... John Garfield's face was a battleground of moral conflict. He always had that look on his face of what was the right thing to do? and suffering for it. And then, apparently, going through and doing the right thing, 'within a world of corruption'."

The two then make brief comparisons between Waterfront and Evil, primarily the thread of the conflicting brothers, but then Scorsese adds, "Force of Evil is styled in [a] different way... No matter how great that film is, Force of Evil, it's still within a context of the elements of a studio film. Those elements, but it doesn't mean it's not good, it was still utilizing those elements. Waterfront is like Kane in a way, there's something about the very making of that film that's revolutionary the way Kane was."

Scorsese's appreciation for Waterfront is obvious and well-documented, quite literally. He says it's no longer a film for him, instead it's a phenomenon, yet his appreciation for Force of Evil is equally obvious.

Below I've added a couple more screen captures from Force of Evil, which was shot by George Barnes (Rebecca, The War of the Worlds), but right before that is a video featuring Scorsese discussing early gangster films and he includes Force of Evil right around the 5:50 mark. I find it funny 18 years ago he was still referring to Garfield's face as a "battleground of moral conflict".

As for my thoughts on the film, I quite enjoyed it. Scorsese's comments on Garfield's performance are, to no surprise, spot on. His character is in an intense moral bind and the entire film must be examined through a corrupt lens. It takes a look at the whole of society and asks us what level of corruption are we willing to tolerate? The line between the good guys and bad guys is clearly blurred, and yet we know who we are supposed to cheer for.

Then there's the ending, which is an absolute a punch to the face. It's an example of how films of the past knew not only how to end a film, but when. If Force of Evil had been made today there would be, minimum, five minutes more added to the end, if not ten to 15 additional minutes and the impact would have been lessened considerably.

You can find Force of Evil on DVD at Amazon and On the Waterfront is available on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray right here.

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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/samlane/ samlane

    I hoping to get Criterion's release of On the Waterfront soon. I actually haven't seen it before, but I've been taking a deeper interest in Elia Kazan and his films recently.
    I discovered A Personal Journey Through American Movies With Martin Scorsese a number of years ago and it has been one of the few major influences on my film viewing experience. I've been meaning to re-watch it soon.
    I'd forgotten about his discussion of Force of Evil. I'm going to have to obtain it soon too. Those kind of atmospheric, black and white noir films really intrigue me.

  • http://www.everyeliakazanmovie.blogspot.ca/ IngmarTheBergman

    Force of Evil is such an underrated noir. Such care was put into the use of shadow. I hope it gets the Criterion treatment soon.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/samlane/ samlane

    Just finished Force of Evil and enjoyed it a lot. I found it interesting that throughout the movie Leo's heart problems are talked about and John Garfield himself died from a heart condition five years later.

  • Dale

    The year after "Force of Evil" was released (1948), two other excellent boxing films were released: "Champion" with Kirk Douglas (who was Oscar-nominated) and "The Set-Up" with Robert Ryan. Both are available on DVD.