I’m having a hardcore noir watching contest over the next two months, and I’m already behind! (mind you, only one film.. still, I need to gain the lead). We have until sometime in mid February to watch the most films of the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They? list of Top 250 Noirs and their Non-American noir list to spice up on some diversity. Rewatches are acceptable, although the point of the experiment is to expand our knowledge of the genre. The first film I watched for the contest is Polonski’s much hailed, Force of Evil (1948), which is listed as highly recommended by TSPDT. It reminds me very much of the Sweet Smell of Success, thematically and stylistically. They both have a sense of poetics (the dialogue is written in iambic pentameter…), and corruption, of the corporate kind, but as well of the soul. The story in many ways, attains, or at the very least reaches for a mythic or Shakespearean level of meaning and impact, using archetypes like Shylock as lose inspirations for the characters. While I don’t think I’d rank the film on such a high level, there is no doubt it’s a harsh, complex and intelligent film that demands attention and certainly a rewatch.
The heart and soul of the picture, even if as the viewer, we’re not quite sure he even has one… is no doubt Joe Morse. Morse played by the wonderful John Garfield, is seemingly corrupt to the very soul. He’s a lawyer for a number’s game, and money is the only thing that rules his life. This is why his extreme devotion to save his brother is so intriguing, while there are hints he’s trying to pay him back for all the sacrifice that he made earlier in their lives, Morse is refused the traditional course of a classic movie character, or even a Shakespearean one in that he never has a speech, or an aside explaining his motives. While they appear selfless on the surface, there is a sense of selfishness in that he’s trying to cure his own pains, and clear his conscious. In every imaginable way, the film is about greed and every character who shows any virtue is bitten in the end. The film is harsh, pessimistic and unforgiving. Every character is ambiguous, and in their own way, ugly. Even Doris, who appears to be the angelic beacon is tempted by wealth and Joe Morris’ charisma.
Joe’s strength comes from his words, as mentioned earlier, the entire film is essential an epic poem. If words were poison, Joe Morse may have been the most notorious serial killer in film. He could slice through anything with his remarks, and his manipulations. At first I was very much at odds with this, I thought it was out of place, especially compared to the afore mentioned Sweet Smell of Success, where words hold the same power. In Success, these men are hustlers, writers and publicists. Words are their tools, like a gun or violence would be in another noir. Then it dawned on me, this is the reason for Joe’s success. Not only as a lawyer as a tool to circumvent the law, but as a means of his advancement and survival. One of his own allegories that he brings up is of a magician, to which Doris responds that she was always tricked by them because she focused on their words, and not on their actions. This is means of his survival, right until the end when he uses people’s own words to bring upon their downfalls.
Added tension in the film is created in the juxtaposition of tight and wide shots. Conversations between characters are almost claustrophobic as the character’s faces crowd the screen. I somehow don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the employees in the numbers house is actually claustrophobic, and can’t even stand to sit in a police car without panicking. Wide shots are used for isolation, when Joe is reflective or in danger, more alone than he’s ever been. At one point he seems to be descending stairs straight into hell, and he’s running there as if this is what he’s been waiting for his entire life.
It’s a shame the film was made as a b-movie, it’s too short for one thing. It could have been expanded upon, just ten more minutes would have sufficed. The sets left something to be desired, and Edna Tucker seemed sorely underdeveloped. It’s the script, and Garfield who really elevate the film to it’s classic status. It’s tragic that his life and career were cut short, because he is one of those truly incomparable talents.