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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Force Of Evil and The End Of Enterprise --- Part One

Shady lawyer John Garfield's big idea in Force Of Evil is to turn the numbers racket into a legal lottery. In light of state(s)-sanctioned gambling since 1948, that sounds like a doable plan. In fact, pre-coding Warren William or Bill Powell could have managed it without getting off their barstools. For agenda-driven Abraham Polonsky however, Force Of Evil was serious business. Corruption inherent in numbers betting was shorthand for capitalism itself so far as he viewed it. Abe interview-said later that gangsterism is like capitalism, or the other way around. He was able to put that view across with Force Of Evil thanks to whopping success of Body and Soul, written by Polonsky and starring John Garfield. Now they were teamed under AP's first-time direction under the Enterprise Company banner, Enterprise being among independents started up to feed off a booming postwar picture market. A lot of us now call Force Of Evil some kind of great, but it tanked bad coming out of a late-40's gate. Erratic ownership dogged the negative since. In a move Polonsky might have filed under bitter ironies, even the Bank Of America seized Force Of Evil once.

Enterprise was a brainchild of David Loew and industry connected partners. David was a son of MGM founder Marcus Loew and so doors opened readily to him. He'd produced a half-dozen or so features since 1941, most arty, several outstanding (The Southerner, The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami) and one that hit big, A Night In Casablanca. Enterprise was to be a square-dealing outfit where employees were paid well, got perks (life insurance and fresh-squeezed orange juice in the morning!), plus creative freedom such as major studios never granted. Could Enterprise succeed? Only if individual pics did, for this was an outfit that lived or died on tickets a latest release sold. As things worked out, one massive flop, Arch Of Triumph, brought the curtain down so that by the time Force Of Evil was ready, Enterprise was all but a dying husk.

Force Of Evil is lately out on Blu-Ray from Olive, looking how we wish all noirs could given HD delivery. What reservations I had about the show dissolved straightaway thanks to Blu-rescuing, proof again that opinion (at least mine) upticks plenty when a rarity is at last decently viewed. 16mm and previous discs were pallid representation of what now seems a visual equal to any noir made. Quality does matter --- most of anything when it comes to a Force Of Evil. Distribution has been a Parcheesi board since MGM handled the 1948 (mostly '49) release. Enterprise being a sunk ship by 1953, unpaid creditor Bank Of America took their inventory and released FOE with others to early TV. The labyrinth that is independent pic ownership finally put Force Of Evil in Paramount's custody, enabling the Olive sub-let.

The only meaningful hit Enterprise had was Body and Soul, that a salvation and career boost for John Garfield as well. He'd left Warners, gone back on the stage, always looking for ways to escape types previously cast in. Garfield had nerve to stand again before audiences. Few to click at movies dared leave studio cocoons. Bogart would laugh when anyone suggested a return to live performance. They all knew posing for cameras, doing scenes over and again to get same right, sapped discipline if not confidence. Garfield to his credit kept wanting to be better and took chances toward getting there. By Force Of Evil, he made the peak. Garfield and producing partner Bob Roberts picked better properties than fellow Warner expatriates Bogart and Cagney, who independently produced around a same time. Force Of Evil was reasonably made for $1.15 million, this according to an excellent studio history of Enterprise written by Allen Eyles for Focus On Film #35.

Force Of Evil was first to deal foursquare with the so-called "numbers racket." This was nickel-to-dollars wagering on three-number combinations that changed daily, winners being those who chose the one coming up that particular day. It seemed a harmless bet to otherwise law-abiders, none of whom realized grand scales on which the system operated. By the late forties, numbers were said to be the largest ongoing racket in the US, a seeming cinch for picture-usage but for Production Code clamp on "racket" as a title or exploitation hook. In fact, Force Of Evil was tendered early as on-the-nose The Numbers Racket, a label that might have helped had it gone out so-named. While no official action has been taken, said Variety, it's understood that (the) studio is being quietly urged to find a better tag. Garfield + crime had been a fit on past occasions --- in fact, the majors courted he and Roberts for this property, but as Enterprise had extended creative freedom to Body and Soul, the team stuck with their independent partner.

Among Force Of Evil Highlights: Detailed Look at How the Numbers Racket Worked

Garfield and crew spent two April '48 weeks doing location in Brooklyn and Manhattan, this made easier for Gotham having eased "impossible conditions" discouraging filmmakers. Applications to shoot were now being same-day approved, a mayor's office pointing to recent The Naked City as proof NYC would extend cooperation. Force Of Evil was completed on  Hollywood stages Enterprise sublet from producer Harry Sherman (of Hopalong Cassidy association) during start-up 1946. Enterprise was in trouble what with Arch Of Triumph failing and only one other film in production, Caught, directed by Max Ophuls. David Loew used his family (and other) connections to make a distribution deal with MGM, a real coup as that firm generally stood on policy not to handle outside pics. Metro's deal was for No Minor Vices, a comedy with Dana Andrews and Lilli Palmer, Force Of Evil, and Caught, these representing the last of Enterprise's output.

Part Two of Force Of Evil is HERE.


Anonymous mido505 said...

Am I the only film geek who loathes Force of Evil? Abraham Polonsky should have been grateful for the blacklist; it is the only reason he's remembered now. He was a hack, whose one trick pony was Body and Soul. Full of resentment of his betters, like most Communists, Polonsky made a career out of slandering and vilifying Elia Kazan, a man touched by genius, and one of the greatest film directors of all time.

I once watched an interview with a withered Polonski, spittle forming in the corners of his mouth, snarling that "in the old days, in my neighborhood, we knew what to do with a snitch", i.e. kill him. Nice. Of course, anyone who has ever visited a country run by the Communists knows who the real gangsters are. Kazan got it right.

Watching Force of Evil is like reading Das Kapital in blank verse. Pretentious, unbearable and, finally, wrong. Were it not for John Garfield's performance, and George Barnes's expert lensing, no one would remember it.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous Griff said...

I'm not sure this is the sort of venue for this sort of discussion. I gather mido505 is no fan of Abraham Polonsky and FORCE OF EVIL. Fine. I have no words for the remainder of his comments.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Force of Evil is great entertainment and definitely as good as its reputation suggests. A fine noir.

While Paramount technically owns it, Force of Evil along with the rest of the Enterprise holdings are lumped into a separate Republic catalog holding that Paramount leases to other companies rather than release from themselves.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I visit Greenbriar Picture Shows often-- once or twice a week, as a rule. I have only rarely been moved to post a comment.

I feel moved to say that, while I do not endorse political witch hunts, and while I cannot speak to the talent of Abraham Polonsky one way or another, I wholeheartedly agree with the comments of mido505 regarding communism and communist dictatorships.

Communism is a cauldron of misery.

For the record, my name is MIKE BALLEW.

3:55 AM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Your column made me recall a section from Ingrid Bergman's autobiography in which she wrote about how she realized every studio with whom she made a picture in the late 1940's subsequently went out of business. In each case, their collapse was attributed to the lackluster performance of her films. Until I read this fine column, I never made the "Enterprise" connection between Arch of Triumph and Force of Evil.

I have not seen either Force of Evil in years, however while I cannot recall the plot, my impression was that Force Of Evil was a very powerful film, and Garfield's performance still resonates with me to this day.

I find it interesting that when so many acclaimed films, both new and old, just fade away, it is interesting to read the passionate comments this film still seems to inspire.

I am eagerly awaiting the second part!

12:43 PM  

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