Force of Evil

(Abraham Polonsky, USA, 1948)


Like The Night of the Hunter (1955), Force of Evil is a unique event in the history of American cinema.

Its director, Abraham Polonsky, made two subsequent movies much later and scripted others, but this is the sole film in which the full extent of his promising brilliance shone, before being snuffed out by the McCarthy era blacklist.

Force of Evil sits uncomfortably within the film noir genre, despite the presence of a star (John Garfield) associated with hardboiled, streetwise movies.

It is above all a film of poetry, carried by a blank verse voice-over narration and a highly stylised sing-song dialogue which are among the most astounding and radical innovations of 1940s cinema, anticipating Malick’s Badlands (1973).

This is a story of amorality, guilt and redemption, dramatised through the near-Biblical device of betrayal between brothers.

Polonsky breaks up the fatalistic gloom of the piece (its final image of the descent to a corpse among garbage is chilling) with a touching and very modern love story between Garfield and Beatrice Pearson.

The film is stylised down to the smallest detail, in line with its poetic ambition: to liberate sound, image and performance, and have all three interact in an intoxicating polyphony.

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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