Saturday, December 12, 2020

Force Of Evil 1948


The Marie Windsor Blogathon 
Hosted By Toby Roan over at 50 Westerns From The 50's

     While undoubtedly a film-noir (and one of the best IMO) Abraham Polonsky's 1948 FORCE OF EVIL while containing the classic noir elements such as the main character on an inevitable road to his fate that he cannot change, a beautiful (although not central) femme fatal and a dark and forbidding cityscape, there are other underlying things at work here. Unlike other noirs FORCE OF EVIL deals with shady lawyers and businessmen who control the lives and fortunes of those below them and was also one of the first films along with NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL 1955 and THE BIG COMBO 1955 that showed crime as a corporation while inserting its tendrils into the very core of society. Because as in a way it could be seen as an anti-capitalism statement this film was the main reason for Polonsky to run afoul of the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities (which John Garfield was also tragically involved with).
     Garfield plays ambitious young attorney Joe Morse who has a secret phone locked in his desk drawer that is a direct line to his main client mobster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts HE WALKED BY NIGHT). Morse is in cahoots with Tucker in an attempt to gain control of the numbers racker in NYC by forcing out the small betting parlors by rigging the winning numbers. One of the interesting things FORCE OF EVIL does is that it gets down into the real nuts and bolts of the numbers racket in which millions of people made nickel & dime bets on a set of three numbers that were picked from horse racing results. As one character says in the course of the film "it's a petty crime" but FORCE OF EVIL shows hows that those small bets add up to millions of dollars that are used to pay off corrupt politicians, judges, and police.

   Morse has a brother Leo (Thomas Gomez KEY LARGO) who runs one of the small numbers parlors with which Joe Morse has made an agreement with Tucker to save and fold into the new large "corporation". Unlike most other film-noir that deal with shadowy figures dealing in robberies and murder FORCE OF EVIL puts the criminal activity in line with lawyers, wall street, and businessmen all of which are conspiring against the working class. The Morse brothers relationship is one of the primary plot points setting up a Jekyll and Hyde thing with the overtly corrupt lawyer contrasting with his crooked albeit decent working-class brother. While each brother cares for each other their motives and actions shift considerably as they move toward a tragic outcome. 
   Joe also begins a relationship with Doris (Beatrice Pearson) a young woman who works for Leo in a minor job and along with several other employees of Leo's are presented as the true innocents in the unfolding drama with Leo shown as a father figure and caring employer who feels actual empathy for his staff and is powerless as they're shallowed up and used by the big corrupt businessmen. 
    The story itself is terrific with well-written amoral characters and was based upon a book by Ira Wolfert titled Tucker's People which was published in 1943. The book was optioned by Garfield's newly formed Enterprise Productions which he started after his contract at Warner had expired and this was its second production which was preceded by BODY AND SOUL in 1947 (and was also directed by Polonsky). 
     If there is a fault with FORCE OF EVIL it is that it does become very "talky" at certain points as characters seem to engage in lengthly & highly detailed (and highly unlikely) conversations that explain in minute detail the workings of the racket which does help explain things to the audience but are kind of tedious. This however is more than overshadowed by the cast and production including beautiful cinematography by George Barnes who had shot JANE EYRE and Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND and REBECCA. The film makes great use of actual NYC locations much of which was shot in the very early morning hours which lends an empty and desolate feel to the city. There are several terrific sequences including a beautifully edited shooting in a basement restaurant while a Beethoven piece plays plaintively on a phonograph and a nail-biting shootout in a dark office.

    Garfield is terrific as the ambitious lawyer who is blinded by his greed and it's his internal narration that contains many of the scripts most poignant lines ("A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he should have said") and it's interesting to see busy character actor Roy Roberts who usually played stuffy executives and business-types here take that characterization to the dark side. Howland Chamberlain (THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) has a very symptomatic part as Leo's tragic accountant and he too was blacklisted after his appearance in HIGH NOON and didn't work again until the 70's.
      In one of her first credited roles, Marie Windsor has a small but very memorable role as gangster Roy Roberts's wife and has two nice dialogue sequences with Garfield. Although sadly underused as initially as her character is set up as the classic noir femme-fatal and although she obviously is trying to seduce Garfield their relationship doesn't lead to his downfall. She is, however (as always) unforgettable here, and when she's curled up in her black dress with those gorgeous eyes seductively conversing with Garfield's Joe Morse you wonder how he can not succumb to her like many a classic noir character, but then as he says is only in for the money. 
     A big thanks to Toby for putting this blogathon together and celebrating one the greatest and undersung actresses in film history.  

Friday, October 23, 2020


“Nobody Touched Las Vegas Loot Until… They Came to Rob Las Vegas” 

An oozing coolness Gary Lockwood and a gang of European character actors hatch out a heist plan to knock-off a hi-tech armored truck in this unjustly forgotten caper film. A French/Spain/Italy/West Germany co-production that also features Elke Sommer along with Lee J. Cobb and Jack Palance (in a rare good guy role) bringing some acting and publicity gravitas to the production. Lots of vintage Vegas exteriors and awash in 60's decor, it also features a script with some quirky & witty moments but at 129 minutes is kind of ponderous in places.

Opening with a COOL HAND LUKE-like frenzied escape through a swamp complete with angry dogs and shotguns, Gino Russo (Jean Servais RIFIFI 1955) makes good his escape via car and ends up in psychedelic 1960's L.A. where he looks up his younger brother Tony (Gary Lockwood 2001: A SPACE ODESSEY 1968). Gino tries to talk his younger brother into an armored car robbery on a heavily armored and fortified vehicle operated by the Skorsky Corporation, but Tony declines as he reminds the elderly Gino that times have changed and the caper is doomed to fail. Sure enough, Gino and his gang although armed with a bazooka (!!) are bloodily gunned down in a freeway overpass attempting the robbery while a gang of spectators including Tony watches impassively from atop the freeway. 

Now in Las Vegas Tony works as a blackjack dealer at The Flamingo and is running a scam on the casino with Jill Bennett (Elke Sommer DEADLIER THAN THE MALE 1967) and planning a revenge caper on the Skorsky Corporation which is headed by Steve Skorsky (Lee J. Cobb MARC THE NARC 1975) whose specially designed armored cars (that looks like an armor-plated Winnebago) are used to transport money from Vegas to Los Angeles. Sommer's Jill Bennett is also the secretary/mistress of Steve Skorsky and it is with her that Tony will obtain the secret route timing of the money shipment. Adding another twist to the proceedings is that Skorsky is also using his armored trucks to transport gold for the Mafia which brings in Treasury Agent Douglas (Jack Palance RULERS OF THE CITY 1976) to start nosing around.

Tony brings together his gang to pull off the heist which includes a gaggle of familiar faces including Gustavo Re (SUMMERTIME KILLER 1972), Daniel Martin (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS 1964), and Enrique Avila (PLAY DIRTY 1969). Unlike other caper films, there's not a lot of time here devoted to the actual planning as Tony just gathers his gang around a pool table and then marches them out to the desert with the long shots of men trudging over sand dunes giving a flashback of sorts to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The film also seems to draw upon the previous year's John Wayne/Kirk Douglas western THE WAR WAGON (which in actuality is a western caper film) as they both share a supposedly impregnable method of transporting money that's controlled by a corrupt power-hungry businessman.  

With both the Treasury Agent Douglas and Tony looking to get into the armored truck it's inevitable that this leads to both of them trying it on the same day which leads to the film really kicking into gear with double-crosses, triple-crosses and I think even a quadruple cross(??)! When the film sticks to the nuts and bolts of the heist it is holding your interest but when it invariably moves to character interaction it falls a bit flat. There's a lot of Lee J. Cobb in his high-tech office building (which looks to be lifted right out of Euro-spy villains liar) yelling and growling at people along with some tedious filler toward the end and at 129 minutes it could have lost about 20 minutes easily. 

Directed by Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi (who also had a hand in the screenplay) and shot in beautiful widescreen by Juan Gelpi, it was filmed in Spain particularly around Almeria which gives the desert scenery a very spaghetti western feel (along with a host of familiar voices dubbing the European actors). The shots of Las Vegas & Los Angeles (including a nifty sequence at Angels Flight) were done separately with none of the principal actors (and most of it done in obvious rear-projection). The Las Vegas footage is spectacular with glorious views of a pre-theme park Vegas complete with marquees hyping Juliet Prowse in Sweet Charity at Ceasars, Dean Martin in the Copa Room, Jimmy Durante at The Desert Inn, and topless revues at The Sahara all followed by a steak dinner at Mr. Porterhouse. 

Gary Lockwood was in the midst of a great run in this period including 2001: A SPACE ODESSEY (1968), MODEL SHOP (1968), and the underrated western FIRECREEK (1968). A handsome brooding actor, even when playing a decent guy he always seemed to have a sullen intensity smoldering underneath.  In his scenes with Elke Sommer (here improbably playing an American but who the heck cares its Elke Sommer) there's a vague hinting of S&M in their relationship and one gets the feeling there's something more (or less) than love going on here. Through the film, it is left vague as to whether Tony is simply using her in order to get close to Skorsky.

It's odd seeing Palance play a character on the law & order side of things, but this brings am ambiguity to his role as it's always in the back of your mind on his true motives are.  Both him and Lee J. Cobb both were lending their names and faces to various Italian productions at the time and both of them bring some gravity to proceedings as after the initial prison escape it seems to take on a more light-hearted tone but then gets progressively darker. It is pretty cool to see Jean Servais from the all-time classic heist RIFIFI film show up.   

The film features a great jazz-tinged soundtrack moving around cool, sexy, and thrilling sounds and is way overdue for a new release. Long unavailable and hard to see except for occasional showings on TCM, this now available on DVD through Warner Archive.