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Force of Evil: Abraham Polonsky and Anti-Capitalist Noir

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Still from “Force of Evil.”

Years ago I worked in the law office of attorney Leon Despres, former Alderman for Chicago’s Fifth Ward, which comprehends Hyde Park and the University of Chicago.  Despres was a Chicago legend, famous for his opposition to the regime of Richard J. Daley and for his defense of African-Americans in what was then and is now the most racially polarized city in the US.  Though long retired from the City Council, journalists covering municipal corruption would often stop by his office to touch base with Despres on ethical, legal and procedural matters.  Studs Terkel—an old friend of Despres—was also a frequent visitor.

I once asked Despres about organized crime in Chicago and he explained that back in the 1930’s the South Side, where he resided, was controlled by the Jones brothers: Edward, George and Mack.  The brothers ran prostitution, gambling and all the jitney cabs south of Madison Street, but their most lucrative enterprise was “policy”—the illegal street lottery also known as the numbers racket.  “If the local numbers runner had the flu or something and failed to make an appearance on your street,” Despres told me, “what you’d do is you’d go to the local precinct house and place your bet with the desk sergeant.  He’d see that it reached the right people.”

Policy lies at the heart of Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil, arguably the most anti-capitalist film ever to emerge from Hollywood.  Released 70 years ago to puzzled critics and an indifferent public, over time it would achieve cult status among devotees of film noir while offering a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been accomplished by Polonsky and other members of the Hollywood Left had the blacklist not intervened.

The film starred John Garfield—actually Julius Jacob Garfinkle—whom Polonsky had previously worked with on Body and Soul, a hit movie in 1947.  Scripted by Polonsky and directed by Robert Rossen (who would later direct The Hustler), Body and Soul also had an anti-capitalist agenda, this time tucked inside a seemingly typical ring melodrama, though its political message likely went over the heads of most audience members.  Typical of Polonsky’s dialogue in his 1947 screenplay is the following declaration by Roberts, the boxing impresario played by Lloyd Gough: “Everything is addition or subtraction.  The rest is conversation.”  I cannot imagine a more succinct summation of capitalism.

Polonsky both wrote (with novelist Ira Wolfert) and directed Force of Evil.  Ostensibly a noir melodrama, the film takes direct aim at world of buying and selling as is immediately evident from its vertical opening shot of Trinity Church entombed by the monolithic structures framing Wall Street.  We hear John Garfield as Joe Morse, the protagonist, in the following voice over: “This is Wall Street, and today was important because tomorrow, July 4, I intended to make my first million dollars.”

Joe Morse was an unusual choice for Garfield, who is best remembered for his work in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and the above-mentioned Body and Soul.  Both movies were substantial hits.  In each film Garfield plays a working class character struggling against long odds.  Joe Morse, by contrast, is a slick corporate attorney ensconced in a fashionable office.  He works for a mobster named Tucker, played by Roy Roberts.  The million dollars Joe Morse craves is to be drawn from the vast reservoir of cash generated by the illegal policy racket his principal client seeks to monopolize.  In A Very Dangerous Citizen, Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left, Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner write that attorneys such as Joe Morse “might have law degrees from fancy institutions, wear silk hats, smoke pipes, and have offices ‘in the clouds,’ but they are still cheap hoods.”

The plan Joe Morse hatches on behalf of Tucker is to break the small policy banks throughout the city by fraudulently allowing the number 776—the most popular triple digit on July 4—to hit so that the little operators must go begging to big fish Tucker for a bailout.  Ultimately, Tucker will own them all.  Robert Nott’s He Ran All The Way: The Life of John Garfield, quotes Polonsky on this point: “The numbers racket was a big thing in New York.  Always.  And New York was good because to me it was a wonderful metaphor for the whole capitalistic system.  That’s what the picture is about—the monopoly of power that people want.  I call it my expose of capitalism.”

A major problem for Joe Morse is that his older brother Leo, played by Thomas Gomez, runs one of the small time banks Joe’s plan will effectively destroy.  Leo is fifty years old and has a bad heart.  He’d spent his early adulthood scrounging for funds so that Joe could go to law school, and is disillusioned by what Joe has become.  When Joe approaches Leo to throw in with Tucker, Leo refuses.  Joe then has the police raid Leo’s operation, forcing his older brother into Tucker’s grasp.  A Cain and Abel conflict subsequently plays out, punctuated by betrayals and violence when an underworld competitor of Tucker’s tries to muscle in.

Another complication arises when Joe Morse finds himself attracted to Doris, brother Leo’s secretary.  Doris is caught up in the police raid Joe engineers against his brother and the two meet up after Joe bails her out.  To Doris Joe will later admit: “I wasn’t strong enough to resist corruption, but I was strong enough to fight for a piece of it.”

Force of Evil also leads film-goers onto what in 1948 was relatively unfamiliar territory.  From Tucker’s wife Edna, played by Marie Windsor, Joe Morse learns that his direct line to Tucker has been tapped by the authorities, a circumstance not unfamiliar to Polonsky.  Buhle and Wagner in A Very Dangerous Citizen write: “. . . the tap on Polonsky’s phone and transcriptions of selected conversations are unique, suggesting the special attention he received.”

Special attention and a tapped phone line were part and parcel of Polonsky’s life as one of the most prominent Communists then working in Hollywood.  John Garfield was not a member but his wife Rodde had been very active in the Party prior to their starting a family.  In 1947 “friendly” witnesses Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Walt Disney and others appeared before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities to assure the assembled congressmen that Hollywood was indeed threatened by Communist subversion.  With the nation sinking into paranoia and intolerance, both Garfield and Polonsky were at increasing risk.

As Joe Morse pushes ahead with the process of consolidating the smaller banks, references to corporations and mergers pepper Polonsky’s dialogue.  Parallels to today’s world are alarmingly consonant.  In Dark City: The Lost World of Noir, Eddie Muller writes of the ease with which one can “connect the dots between Ben Tucker—Morse’s corrupt ally—and the corporate raiders of contemporary Wall Street.”  (Polonsky would doubtless applaud Matt Taibbi for having coined the term “vampire squid” to describe a modern-day bank.)  Freddie Bauer, Leo’s bookkeeper, is angered by the sudden change in his circumstances and tries to sell out to a rival of Tucker’s, and lures Leo to a fatal rendezvous.

Force of Evil concludes with a shattering sequence that sees Joe Morse descend from the solid geometry of city streets to the chaotic rip-rap beneath the George Washington Bridge, where he finds Leo’s abandoned corpse.  David Raksin’s score and the photography of George Barnes further enhance the devastating denouement, which sees Joe Morse and Doris walk off to an uncertain future.

For Abraham Polonsky and John Garfield, the future was equally uncertain.  Both men came from working class Jewish neighborhoods in the Bronx.  Polonsky would enter City College and go on to earn a law degree while Garfield dropped out of school once he caught the acting bug.  Polonsky started out writing scripts for the radio serial The Goldbergs.  Garfield trained for the stage with The Group, an influential theater company whose members included Clifford Odets, Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan.  Both men were linked to organizations labeled unpatriotic and films deemed subversive.

Force of Evil was a flop at the box office but was judged an artistic triumph by many critics.  In A Very Dangerous Citizen the importance of creative accomplishment within the stifling studio system is addressed: “’Leftists,’ Polonsky observed, knew ‘that you can’t get any radical activity in films.  People who aren’t radicals don’t know that.’”  The best Polonsky could hope for was an artistic success framed by the principles he cherished.  Buhle and Wagner in A Very Dangerous Citizen write: “Force of Evil in particular has come to stand for that class of films that had used the already highly stylized conventions of crime stories, westerns, and other familiar American film genres to create critical social messages.”

Polonsky’s talent for couching his political perspective in a manner both accessible and entertaining made him a threat; his ability to produce great art made his influence powerful and lasting.  Gustave Caillebotte’s masterpiece “Paris Street, Rainy Day” shows in the foreground a man holding an umbrella capacious enough to shelter himself and his wife.  Closer examination of this individual reveals a man clad in the garb of a banker or a highly trained professional.  He has smooth unwrinkled skin, though he is slightly past his prime, and has something of a spread at his midsection, and he carries himself with the vacant smugness of one who has never had to worry about his next meal, leave alone having had to endure any measure of physical labor.  His wife is gorgeously dressed.  Both are untroubled by rain that is just beginning to fall.  Peering more deeply into the canvas one sees in the background others who are not so handsomely garbed, who clutch their hats to their heads as they flee for shelter.  The political implications of Caillebotte’s painting are obvious, yet it remains great art.

Garfield starred in a few more features, including The Breaking Point (1950) and He Ran All The Way (1951), but because of he’d been listed as either a member or a fellow traveler of the Communist Party these films were only given a limited release as the studios distanced themselves from his unwanted notoriety.  Polonsky’s career was similarly sidetracked.

On April 23, 1951 Garfield appeared before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities.  He claimed—truthfully—that he was not a Communist.  (The Party considered him too unreliable to proffer membership.)  Garfield also claimed that he hated the Party and when asked if he knew anyone who was member his answers grew vague: either he didn’t know the individual at issue or he simply couldn’t remember.  Polonsky was in the hearing room for Garfield’s testimony and later praised the actor’s evasiveness.  Despite rigorous cross-examination, Garfield refused to name names.

The following day Polonsky testified.  When asked to name names he either pleaded the Fifth or, depending on the nature of a specific query, used his wartime work with the OSS as justification to cite national security as a means of evasion.  An exasperated Congressman Harold Velde called Polonsky “a very dangerous citizen” and the appellation stuck.  It would be many years before Polonsky could again produce work under his own name.

Both men were listed in Red Channels, television’s official blacklist, effectively sealing off that avenue of employment.  Polonsky wrote a novel about the experience titled A Season of Fear that he would later develop into the screenplay for Guilty by Suspicion (1991) with Robert De Niro.

Garfield was in limbo: though not officially blacklisted in Hollywood, he could not appear in films again until he named names.  The pressure was unrelenting.  He was desperate for work but could not bring himself to rat someone out.  On May 21, 1952 John Garfield died of a heart attack.  Polonsky put the matter bluntly: “The Group trained him, the movies made him, the blacklist killed him.”

Clifford Odets named names, as did Robert Rossen and Elia Kazan.  Odets was emotionally destroyed by the experience and Rossen would forever regret having caved to the Committee.  But Kazan was different.  As Robert Knott relates in He Ran All The Way: “. . . Kazan was in closed-door testimony in April [1952].  He said he did not know John Garfield to be a member of the Communist Party, but he knew others, and he named them.  He then ran a paid ad in The New York Times explaining that he no longer believed in the communist cause, and that he intended to go on directing movies and plays.  And that’s just what he did.”

Kazan’s cool indifference to the pain he’d caused so many others Polonsky found particularly galling.  When Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1999, Polonsky and a number of blacklisted artists organized a protest.  On February 23, 1999 The New York Times ran a story about the organizers, including Polonsky:  “Abraham Polonsky, a blacklisted writer, said today: ‘The issue for me is, if he apologized, nothing would take place. It would be accepted that people make mistakes. Sterling Hayden apologized. He wrote a book about it.’ But in Mr. Kazan’s case, he continued, ‘The point is, he’s silent. So there’ll be protests because of what he said and did.’”

John Garfield was crushed by the force of evil but Polonsky never succumbed to it.  He operated under pseudonyms during the 1950s (scripting Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959) and ultimately had his name restored.  He wrote and directed Tell Them Willie Boy is Here in 1969 and The Romance of a Horse Thief in 1971.  But Polonsky was in his prime when the blacklist torpedoed his career, and there’s no real way of knowing what he might have achieved, and the force of evil he fought so valiantly against remains unvanquished.

More articles by:

Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at incoming@chriswelzenbach.com

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