Force of Evil

Force of Evil

19:00 Presentation: Santos Zunzunegui

20:00 Force of Evil, Abraham Polonsky, USA, 1948, 78' DCP, OV EN, Sub ES


23 March 1999. The usual onlookers who are interested in catching a glimpse of the famous as they arrive to the annual American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards ceremony stand outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But this year, the atmosphere is a bit stranger than usual. Not too far off from the groups of fans who are watching the moves on the red carpet like hawks, there are also unlikely figures present: women and men—some of considerable age—carrying signs and banners ostensibly made by hand are protesting from the opposite side of the street. Their aim: to condemn the attitude held for almost forty years by the filmmaker who is going to receive the honorary Oscar that the Academy gives to one of its members for the whole of their brilliant film career: Elia Kazan, who—in the midst of the “witch hunt;” of the paranoia that cried out against the intrusion of communism (known by some as the “Red Scare”) in the heart of the popular art par excellence—made the decision to name names; to report his former comrades from the party, condemning many of them to professional ostracism or, worse, long-term exile. The images that remain of that day and that moment show, amongst other things, an older man with a lean, sharp face wearing the type of glasses an intellect might wear and carrying a sign to remind all of Kazan's gesture, of his betrayal. A betrayal that, if forgotten, would be—in his opinion—a violation of the fundamental principles of American democracy. His name: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky. This was the same figure who, a few days earlier when the news broke that the award would be given to Kazan, was unable to bite his tongue and said, “I'll be watching, hoping somebody shoots him. It will be an interesting moment in what otherwise promises to be a dull evening.” A few months later, on October 26 of the same year, Polonsky passed away (1910-1999) at the age of eighty-eight years. He was a figure who, when called to testify before the US House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, was described as “a very dangerous citizen” and whose attitude towards life could perhaps be described by adapting the title of a classic from the Hollywood with which he never stopped clashing: he died with his boots on.



The film career of Abraham Polonsky—the ironic Jewish intellect born of Russian parents who emigrated to New York; a figure who put aside his Law studies, his dabbling in teaching, and his first and foremost goal to become a novelist (although he continued to work in the genre throughout his life) to get established in Hollywood after having served for the American army in Europe during the Second World War—owes its (belatedly acquired) relevance to two of the three films that he was able to direct between 1947 and 1971 and to his prior writing of an original script that another famous filmmaker took to the screen (Body and Soul, 1947; Robert Rossen).

It is important to know that Polonsky's career as a filmmaker was unexpectedly interrupted after his debut film as a director in 1948. Polonsky, who had joined the Communist Party in 1935 and had actively participated in a good number of the activities it undertook in the culture world, was called to testify, as we have already mentioned, in 1951 (the “season of fear,” in his own words) alongside his wife Sylvia Marrow before the sadly infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was investigating “communist infiltration in Hollywood.” He appeared on April 25 and refused to affirm or deny being a member of the Communist Party by invoking the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. Despite the fact that he still was able to put his name on one script that year for a film directed by Michael Gordon (his former fellow believer), he was included on the studios' “black lists” and, from the moment when he testified, a seventeen-year period of clandestine work began—a period which included work being done under a false name for both the cinema and TV, until his name as a co-writer once again emerged in the credits of a film that has a certain “aire of Polonsky”: Criminal Brigade (Madigan, Donald Siegel, 1968). In 1969, he again took to directing with a combative western that was called Tell Them Willie Boy is Here(1969). Two years later, he completed his final piece behind the cameras with an irregular film co-produced between the USA, France, and Yugoslavia and set in the Jewish world of Poland at the beginning of the twentieth century—written by David Opatoshu and starting Yul Brinner, Eli Wallach, and Jane Birkin (Romance of a Horsethief, 1971).



The first time that Abraham Polonsky's name appeared on screen was as a co-writer for the film directed by Mitchell Leisen and starring Marlene Dietrich (as a gypsy) entitled Golden Earrings (1947). Polonsky insisted that the film finally debuted included nothing of his work, as it has been “reformatted” by two veteran screenwriters (Frank Butler and Helen Deutsch). The aim of that rewriting was “to present a serious view of the Holocaust as lived by the gypsies—a little mentioned and quickly forgotten event after the war.” Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner see traces of Polonsky's work in two remarks by Marlene in the film: one alludes to the past (“they used to hunt us like wolves”) and another to the future (“in this godforsaken land, they'll kills us all”).[1]

But Polonsky's creative explosion in the film world took place that same year when he put his name on the original script for the film directed by Robert Rossen, Body and Soul, a remarkable review of a subject that had been tackled once before a few years earlier (but without the rawness and sharpness with which Polonsky touches on the subject) by one of the classic authors of American left culture: Golden Boy (1937), a play by Clifford Odets taken to the big screen by Rouben Mamoulian for Columbia Pictures in 1939. But, while in Odets's piece the main character's dreams oscillate between his passion to become a violinist and his decision to make quick money as a boxer, in the script by the writer from New York, the protagonist Charlie Davis doesn't have to choose between art and violence but, instead, between money and an absence thereof—as can be seen in a dialogue between the young man and his mother: “I want to be a fighter! I want money, do you understand? Money. MONEY!” / “You'd better buy a gun and shoot yourself!” / “You need money to buy a gun!”[2]. And although Polansky had to argue with Rossen to get his way and keep the ending that he had written for the film[3], its success made its producer, Enterprise Studios,[4] give (with the blessing of John Garfield) Polonsky the opportunity that he had been waiting for to get behind the cameras in a future project.



To make his debut as a director, Polonsky wrote a script with Ira Wolfert's company based on a novel that Wolfert had published in 1943 entitled Tucker’s People. The film, entitled Force of Evil, is not easy to place in terms of its genera, despite the fact that most scholars include it in the "mixed bag" that was termed as film noir by French critics after the Second World War. It is true that, given the broad definition used to describe this category (which has also reaped fortunes at the Anglo-Saxon box office), it is not difficult to find a connection to justify the film's being placed therein. Having said that, I feel as though the film should be placed in a more complex conceptual space. Let us turn to Martin Scorsese, largely responsible for the recent film revival[5], to propose some elements that may help us define the piece's scope. In the special look that he dedicated to the film in his “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies”[6] in 1955 (just like in the short introduction that he recorded for the film's video edition that same year), the filmmaker made what he through of Polonsky's film quite clear in the section dedicated to “gangster films” (one of the three genera native to American cinema, in his opinion, along with the musical and the western):

“Certain films, especially Force of Evil, directed by Abraham Polonsky, went even further and portrayed society as totally corrupt. John Garfield's character, a lawyer for the mafia, was a landscape of moral conflicts. The social mesh was diseased. The theme became that of the violence of the system, placed before individual violence. Before the viewers' eyes, a corrupt world was portrayed. Abraham Polonsky's dialogue was unusually poetic. You could not go against it. You were tied to the union for life. They used you all your life.  They even wanted you to sacrifice your own family. (…) This madness culminated in The Godfather (1996), directed by Francis Ford Coppola[7]. (…) The individual is not the one who's corrupt—the system is.”

Force of Evil's story revolves around a young attorney (Joe Morse, played by John Garfield) who works as a legal adviser for a mobster (Tucker) who aspires to control all the daily number lottery bets (also known as the numbers game or the Italian lottery)—a betting scheme run by a bunch of small, illegal clubs in the city of New York. Since, on July 4, many patriotic Americans play the number 776 (representing the year of the United States' independence, 1776), Tucker and Morse rig the game so that said number is chosen as the winner of the jackpot, bringing all the small businesses who can't pay out on the bets made to bankruptcy and causing everything to fall into the hands of the mafia. That story intersects (and this is one of the film's great merits) with the story of the Morse brothers. Because Joe has an older brother (Leo, played by Thomas Gomez) who runs a small number betting bank and who, despite the pressures of his brother, refuses to get involved in the scam for moral reasons. The conflict, which puts the two brothers at odds, provides a substantial backbone (reminding us of the story of Cain and Abel—a story which powerfully resonates in the film) to the story by emphasising the two opposing ethical positions. While, for Joe, money is the guiding force of his life[8], Leo is only trying to live with dignity and without taking advantage of his fellow citizens—even though his business isn't exactly legal (which, as is logical, is what Tucker's new era promises).

Additionally, the film portrays two types of gangsters, making the evolution of “business” visible from the time when genre first appeared in the early 1930s (consider The Roaring Twenties directed by Raoul Walsh as a point of reference). The “Ficco model,” which continues relying on raw violence, and the “Tucker model,” which views financial rise in terms of business management supported by corrupt cops.

Although, at first, Polonsky considered starting his film in a courthouse only to later, by means of a conventional flashback, tell the events that had let up to that moment (and he did indeed film part of that scene), he soon understood that “the scene aesthetically destroyed the sense of continuity in the present that he wanted to use to give the movie feeling. The voiceover substituted the original flashback and gave the film the feeling of Joe Morse meditating about the nature of what he was experiencing, instead of simply being used to provide the story with mere narrative elements.”

In fact, this is one of the great merits of the film: the way that images interrelate, the excellent dialogues (this is one of the best written American films, something already evident in Body and Soul), and the use of the voiceover in a unique way for the movies of those times. Under the initial guise of a convention film of the genre, Force of Evil hides some of the most powerful scenes of American cinema of the decade. Let us remember some of the best moments: the two big scenes that bring together (first in a taxi and later in an elegant doorway) Joe Morse and Doris (played by Beatrice Pearson); the meeting between Leo Morse and his accountant Bauer in a slum before being attacked by Ficco's thugs— a scene in which the viewer doesn't know what to admire the most: the beauty and intensity of the dialogues, the direction of the actors, or the lethal tone that washes over the whole thing. And, of course, the final scene in which Joe Morse descends into the depths of East River in search of his brother's body, filmed in eighteen exceptional shots over which his voice sounds out strong to close the film:

“I wanted to find Leo, to see him once more. It was morning by then, dawn. And, naturally, I was feeling very bad there. As I went down there. I just kept going down and down there. It was like going down to the bottom of the world... to find my brother.

I found my brother's body at the bottom there, where they had thrown it away on the rocks by the river like an old, dirty rag nobody wants. He was dead... and I felt I had killed him.

I turned back to give myself up to Hall[9].

Because if a man's life can be lived so long and come out this way -like rubbish- then something was horrible and had to be ended one way or another. And I decided to help.”



First half of the 1990s. Noël Burch and Thom Andersen interview Abraham Lincoln Polonsky for their film Red Hollywood (1995), dedicated to the “Hollywood Communists.” The end of the film goes back to the figure of the elder filmmaker: first read a fragment of the script and then we'll look at the corresponding sequence of the finished film. This is one of the final scenes of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), which has the following dialogue between Willie (the Indian, being chased for having killed a white man out of self-defence, played by Robert Blake) and his lover Lola (Katharine Ross):

“I've been to prison for a little while. Indians don't last in prison (…) / Willie, are you going to kill them? / If, if I have to. / What do you mean, if you have to? / I mean, if they keep coming… / But they're white, Willie. They'll chase you forever. / How long is that? Less than you think. / It's crazy, Willie. You can't win. You can't beat them. Never! / Maybe... Maybe... but they'll know I was here.”


The film closes with a close up of Polonsky who, after reminding us that politics is justified only by success, adds the following, smiling at the spectator: “Although the only battles worth fighting are the ones for lost causes.”



Santos Zunzunegui


[1] That information comes from the book by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left; University of California Press, 2001, page 99.

[2] In Richard Corliss, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, Woodstock (NY), Overlook Press, 1985, page 131. We can look back on a couple more memorable moments from the film's dialogue—moments which revolve around money and set the stage for something that will persist in Force of Evil: “Everything is addition or subtraction. The rest is conversation;” “Take the money. It's not like people. It's got no memory. It don't think.”

[3] While Rossen wanted to finish Charley off at the end of the film, gunned down by his mobster managers after having won the rigged fight for the world championship and losing all the money that had been bet on his predicted defeat, the end proposed by Polonsky, with Garfield “understanding” the significance of what had happened, turns the last scene into a false happy ending, in which individuality takes on a more collective nature in a corrupt society. The idea is well summed up in a sentence that is repeated at least two times in the film: “Everybody dies.”

[4] Enterprise Studios was created in 1947 by David L. Loew and Charles Einfeld. In search of greater creative freedom, John Garfield—who had finished up his contract with Warner Bros—and his manager Robert Roberts joined the company the same year. Amongst the films that Enterprise got off the ground over its four years of existence are, in addition to the two that brought Roberts and Garfield together (Body and Soul, Force of Evil), works directed by Lewis Milestone (Arch of Triumph, 1948) and Max Ophuls (Caught, 1949)—their last production.

[5] Not aiming to play down the importance of Scorsese’s gesture, many years ago certain critics had already pointed out the value of the film, rescuing from ostracism what McCarthyism had aimed to bury. I'll just list a few individual names and collectives that I recall: William Pechter (1962), French critics (Présence du cinéma, Positif, and Cahiers du cinéma, 1965), Andrew Sarris (1968).

[6] Martin Scorsese and Michael H. Wilson, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies (A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, 1995).

[7] And since Scorsese mentions The Godfather, I'll remind you of one more quote from the dialogue of Body and Soul: “Debts have to be paid or it wouldn't be business.”

[8] In a fragment of Joe Morse's voiceover at the start of the film, which was not included in the final version, things are said with great clarity: “I wanted to be successful in life, make my way in the world, and I thought there were three ways to do that. Inherit a fortune, work hard all your life, or steal. I was born poor and impatient.”

[9] The new district attorney trying to put an end to the doings of Tucker.