Force of Evil is a dark, unflinching look at a society in which criminality has become so commonplace that it's practically become a business. This is a film about characters who keep forgetting, or wanting to forget, that they're not actually honest men, that they're crooks. This is especially true of Joe Morse (John Garfield), a mob lawyer who makes the transition from representing his clients to helping them set up their "business deals," to being actively involved in every aspect of their organization. Throughout all this, Morse keeps telling himself and anyone who'll listen that he's just a lawyer after all, that soon he'll help introduce legislation to transform these underground organizations into just a few more legitimate businesses. It's obvious that neither Morse nor anyone else believes this self-justification, but one of the film's primary themes is the ways in which people lie to themselves in order to get what they want but know is wrong Morse has even turned this ethos into a tortured morality in which, he says, the only "natural" human reaction is greed, not guilt.
This blunt, economical noir is one of the few credits for writer and director Abraham Polonsky, whose career in cinema was tragically truncated by the Hollywood blacklist. Certainly, it wouldn't be hard to detect Polonsky's socialist bent simply by watching this debut feature, which makes the not-so-subtle point that racketeering is not really so different from other businesses in a capitalist society it's only a grander form of thievery, a difference of scale rather than kind. As Morse's brother Leo, Thomas Gomez plays this aging racketeer like a frazzled businessman, in over his head, not wanting to make his living by robbing from others but unable to see a clear alternative; after all, he did basically similar things when he owned a gas station earlier in his life, except he made less money then. This blunt social commentary is matched by the often awkward narration, which is the film's one real weakness. Garfield's voiceover, mercifully limited to a few scenes, conveys the world-weary noir mood, but the writing lacks any verve, bogging down in too many repetitions and trotting out cliché after cliché. This is odd, because Polonsky's dialogue is frequently sizzling, funny and sexy and hard-boiled, all punch and pepper. His writing seems to thrive whenever he goes for pulp which, thankfully, is most of the time while his narration reeks of literary pretensions and strained profundity.
The voiceover is pretty much the only real caveat, though, in a film that otherwise rigorously develops its slow-burning plot. This is a morally engaged noir that deals openly with intricate issues of culpability, social responsibility, and justice, sometimes with ham-fisted preachiness like a brief moralizing speech about the importance of acknowledging psychological ailments, obviously shoehorned in for the sake of the out-of-place message but more often with intelligence and subtlety. The Morse brothers present a dichotomous moral character study, one feeling forced into evil and the other talking himself into believing that he's good, even though they both wind up being complicit in the same evil system. The duality of their relationship is both built into the script, and inscribed in the phenomenal performances by Garfield and Gomez: the former smooth, untroubled, and fast-talking, and the latter a sweaty, overweight neurotic, his eyes bulging, seemingly always just one piece of bad news away from a heart attack.
The doubling of characters is also carried over, albeit in a less fully developed way, to the two women in the film, the girlish Doris (Beatrice Pearson), who works for Leo's numbers racket but quits in a moment of conscience, and the prototypical femme fatale Edna (Marie Windsor), the wife of Joe's gangster client Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). Doris might easily have been just another in a long line of sappy, unbearable heroines coming out Hollywood, but there's much more to her than a cute face and a plucky attitude. Pearson was a stage actress who made her movie debut in Force of Evil, then quickly returned to the stage for the rest of her career, obviously a loss for the movies on the evidence of this performance. She brings a subtle blend of emotions to this complex character, who projects such innocence and all-American cleanliness, and yet who has served as secretary for a numbers runner for years. She's a good girl with a criminal record, and she's undeniably drawn to Joe's roguish charm and his unabashed advocacy for naked self-interest and criminal greed. The sexual frisson between her and Joe is downright hot: not their curiously passionless kisses, but the quick-witted dialogue they throw back and forth, which crackles with the unsaid seduction going on between them. When Joe tells her he's celebrating "a clear conscience," she primly asks, "Oh, whose?" Certainly not Joe's, but probably not hers either. She's all mock-innocence and widened eyes, but her pouty mouth is just as likely to twist into a bit of a smirk as it is to patiently wait for a kiss. Next to her, the film's real femme fatale seems almost boring, even though Marie Windsor is a joy even in a somewhat small role, as the gangster's wife who keeps hitting on and tormenting her husband's lawyer more out of boredom than anything else.
Polonsky's first directorial effort inevitably makes one bemoan his shortened career. His visual sense is well-developed even on his first foray behind the camera. He has a crisp, clean sensibility, an eye for realistic street scenes and expressionist shadowy interiors alike. He creates a strangely unpopulated, artificial-seeming city that only occasionally opens out into brightly lit views of its buildings and facades, but seldom its people: the streets of this city are mostly empty. This emptiness is carried through in every frame of the film, especially in the undecorated white walls of the mobster Tucker's home, against which any human figure stands out like a filthy blotch on the unblemished white. In one striking sequence, as Tucker and Joe walk down a white staircase, Polonsky shoots from above in a long shot, letting them get lost in the nearly abstract maze of lines and shapes formed by the stairs, the railing, and the shadows strewn across the wall. Polonsky uses these striking effects sparingly, letting his dramatic framings accentuate the action: looking up from the bottom of a staircase at Joe, framed in shadowy profile; seeing Joe's face move, in close-up, through the criss-crossing areas of light and shadow in an abstracted composition. Force of Evil is a true classic noir, one of the shining masterpieces of the genre.