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Tag Archives: Howland Chamberlain

Force of Evil (Dec. 25, 1948)

Force of Evil
Force of Evil (1948)
Directed by Abraham Polonsky
Enterprise Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Force of Evil was the first film Abraham Polonsky directed. It was also the last film he would direct for a long, long time.

Polonsky was blacklisted after he refused to testify before HUAC in 1951. He went on to write screenplays under a variety of pseudonyms, but he didn’t receive another directorial credit until he made the Robert Redford film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969).

A lot of great directors were blacklisted in the 1950s, but Polonsky’s inability to make more films seems especially tragic. Force of Evil is not only a great film, but it’s the kind of scathing critique of the foundations of America’s financial system that’s lacking from most crime films in the 1950s.

Polonsky wrote the screenplay for Robert Rossen’s boxing masterpiece Body and Soul (1947), which starred John Garfield. Body and Soul was a big hit, and it’s alluded to on the poster for Force of Evil above.

Force of Evil wasn’t as big a hit for John Garfield. There’s even some dispute over the original running time of this film, since M-G-M treated it as a B picture, and wanted it under 90 minutes so it could fit comfortably on the bottom half of a double bill.

Despite all that, it’s a film that’s aged remarkably well. It’s one of the best films Garfield ever starred in, and it’s one of the greatest film noirs ever made.

Garfield upstairs

Force of Evil is based on Ira Wolfert’s 1943 novel Tucker’s People. Polonsky collaborated with Wolfert on the screenplay.

Garfield plays Joe Morse, a lawyer for the powerful mobster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). The film begins with a montage of Wall Street and Joe telling the viewer, in voiceover, that he’s about to make his first million dollars.

On the Fourth of July, most of the suckers who play the numbers play “776” as a superstitious form of patriotism. Tucker has a complicated plan that will force 776 to hit on July 4th, which will put all of the smaller numbers operations out of business when they’re forced to pay out. He’ll swoop in and take control of all the numbers rackets, just like he took control of beer during Prohibition.

Joe Morse is young, slick, and on the verge of being fabulously wealthy. His older brother Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez) is old, overweight, and will never be well-to-do. He runs a small, neighborhood numbers racket (or “bank,” as they are known in the film). He may be taking suckers’ money, but the stakes are small, he pays out what he promises, and he cares about the people he employs.

Joe knows what the Fourth of July has in store for Leo and everyone like him. As Tucker’s lawyer, he’s not able to tell Leo exactly what’s going to happen, but he tries to warn him. When that doesn’t work, he tries to pull strings that will force his brother out of the numbers racket before it’s too late, but it only makes things worse.

Gomez and Garfield

Polonsky showed his cinematographer, George Barnes, some of Edward Hopper’s Third Avenue paintings to give him an idea of how he wanted the film to look. Force of Evil uses a lot of single-source lighting and sharp focus, and it’s full of simple but beautiful compositions.

All of the actors in the film give good performances, including Beatrice Pearson as a girl who works for Leo, and whom he considers a daughter, and Marie Windsor in full femme fatale mode as Tucker’s wife Edna.

Thomas Gomez’s scenes with Garfield are especially powerful. Their dialogue wouldn’t be out of place in a stage play, since Polonsky isn’t afraid to elevate their language to poetic, mythic heights.

There’s not a lot of violence in Force of Evil, but what there is makes a tremendous impact. One sequence toward the end of the film is as good as anything Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese did in any of their gangster films. (Incidentally, Scorsese is a great admirer of Force of Evil. His video introduction to the film is the sole special feature on the gorgeous-looking Blu-ray from Olive Films.)

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The Web (May 25, 1947)

The Web
The Web (1947)
Directed by Michael Gordon
Universal Pictures

The Web is a classic case of mediocre material made incredibly entertaining by an excellent cast and a good director. The film’s plot may be run-of-the-mill, but the film itself is never boring.

The exciting opening takes the viewer along the busy Manhattan streets and overpasses that lead to Grand Central Station and culminates in a tearful reunion between an old man, Leopold Kroner (Fritz Leiber), and his daughter Martha (Maria Palmer). Kroner has just been released from prison, and he is surprised that “Mr. Colby” didn’t come to meet him at the train station. The viewer immediately knows that something sinister is going on, because we see a mug trailing Kroner and his daughter through the train station.

Next, we meet brash young attorney Robert Regan (Edmond O’Brien), who’s trying to force his way into Andrew Colby Enterprises to see the man in charge. When he pushes through several sets of doors and finally meets Noel Faraday (Ella Raines), he demands to see Mr. Colby. When she’s asks what his business with Mr. Colby is, he says, “Well, he’s been carrying on with my grandmother, and I’d like to find out what his intentions are.” When Noel tells him that she’s Mr. Colby’s personal secretary, he responds, “Well that just goes to show you how far a girl can get if she keeps her stocking seams straight.”

Their dialogue continues in this vein for the rest of the picture. Regan is the kind of person who would be known today in some circles as a “jerk,” and if he said half the things he says in The Web during working hours he’d be sued for sexual harassment.

But he’s also a tireless crusader for his clients, which becomes clear when he finally comes face to face with Andrew Colby, who’s played with smooth, villainous charm by the one and only Vincent Price. Regan is there to serve him with a summons on behalf of his client, Emilio Canepa (Tito Vuolo). As a result of Colby’s negligent driving, Canepa’s pushcart and load of bananas were damaged to the tune of $68.72.

Raines and O'Brien

Colby sees in Regan’s bullheaded doggedness an opportunity, and offers Regan a $5,000 retainer to come and work for him. Colby tells Regan that five years ago, his business associate Leopold Kroner took nearly $1 million worth of bonds belonging to Colby’s firm, made duplicates, and sold the counterfeit bonds. He was caught and sent to prison, but now that Kroner has been released, Colby claims he’s been threatening him. Colby has a big deal coming up, and he doesn’t want it known that his life is being threatened. If he hired a bodyguard, it would become public knowledge.

If he just hired another lawyer, however, no one would think twice. All Colby asks of Regan is that he work for him for two weeks as a bodyguard and tell no one what he’s doing.

If you know what the word “patsy” means, you’ll probably have no difficulty figuring out what Colby really wants Regan for.

Rounding out the excellent main cast is William Bendix as Lt. Damico, Regan’s friend on the force. Bendix was equally adept at playing tough guys and clowns, and he gets to flex both his dramatic and comic acting muscles as the long-suffering Damico, who’s a lot wiser than Regan gives him credit for.

Even though he’s the protagonist, O’Brien is probably the weakest link in the film. Regan isn’t a very interesting character, and he’s mostly only good for one-liners, but at least they’re decent one-liners. O’Brien’s innuendo-laced banter with Raines isn’t quite Tracy-Hepburn or Bogie-Bacall, but it’s clever and fast-paced enough to satisfy discriminating noir fans, and Raines’s dark beauty and way with a retort elevate their exchanges.

The screenplay by William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser (based on a story by Harry Kurnitz) really crackles in the dialogue department, which makes up for the pedestrian plot. Director Michael Gordon keeps things moving along nicely, and delivers a satisfying final product. The Web might not be a classic film noir, but it’s thoroughly entertaining.

The Best Years of Our Lives (Nov. 21, 1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Directed by William Wyler
RKO Radio Pictures

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives premiered in New York City on November 21, 1946, and in Los Angeles a month later, on Christmas day. It was a hit with both audiences and critics, and was the biggest financial success since Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The film swept the 19th Academy Awards, winning in all but one category in which it was nominated. The film won best picture, Wyler won best director, Fredric March won best actor, Harold Russell won best supporting actor, Robert E. Sherwood won for best screenplay, Daniel Mandell won for best editing, and Hugo Friedhofer won for best score. (The only category in which it was nominated and did not win was best sound recording. The Jolson Story took home that award.)

There are several reasons for the film’s financial and critical success. It perfectly captured the mood of the times. In 1946, returning servicemen faced an enormous housing shortage, an uncertain job market, food shortages, and a turbulent economy (price controls were finally lifted by the O.P.A. around the time the film premiered). Combat veterans also faced their own personal demons in an atmosphere in which discussing feelings was seen as a sign of weakness. By telling the stories of three World War II veterans returning to life in their hometown, The Best Years of Our Lives held a mirror up to American society.

The biggest reason for the film’s success, however, is that it’s a great movie. Plenty of films made in 1945 and 1946 featured characters who were returning veterans, but none before had shown them in such a realistic, unvarnished way. The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t try to wring tragedy out of its characters’ personal situations. It’s an overwhelming emotional experience precisely because it doesn’t strain for high emotions. The film earns every one of its quietly powerful moments. Hugo Friedhofer’s score is occasionally overbearing, and a little high in the mix, but at its best it’s moving, and a fair approximation of Aaron Copland’s fanfares for common men. Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography is phenomenal. Every image in the film — the hustle and bustle of life in a small American city, the quietly expressive faces of its characters, and the interiors of homes, drugstores, bars, banks, and nightclubs — is fascinating to look at. (Toland was Orson Welles’s cinematographer on Citizen Kane, and he was an absolute wizard.)

Russell Andrews March

The actors in this film are, without exception, outstanding. Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, an infantry platoon sergeant who fought in the Pacific, and who returns to his job as a bank manager. Myrna Loy plays his wife, Milly, Teresa Wright plays their daughter, Peggy, and Michael Hall plays their son, Rob. Dana Andrews plays the shell-shocked Fred Derry, a decorated bombardier and captain in the Army Air Forces in Europe, who returns home to his beautiful wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he married immediately before leaving to serve. Now that the war is over and they are living together, they realize they have very little in common. Harold Russell plays Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both his hands when his aircraft carrier was sunk.

Russell was a non-professional actor who lost his hands in 1944 while serving with the U.S. 13th Airborne Division. He was an Army instructor, and a defective fuse detonated an explosive he was handling while making a training film. Russell’s performance is key to the success of the film. An actor who didn’t actually use two hook prostheses in his everyday life wouldn’t have been able to realistically mimic all the little things that Russell does; lighting cigarettes, handling a rifle, playing a tune on the piano. More importantly, Russell’s performance is amazing. From the very first scene that the camera lingers on his face as he shares a plane ride home with March and Andrews, I felt as if I knew the man.

Russell is so convincing as a man who has quickly adapted to his handicap that it’s gut-wrenching to watch as his exterior slowly breaks down, and we’re drawn deeper into his world. Homer Parrish has a darkness inside him, and he carries with him the constant threat of violence; bayonets adorn the walls of his childhood bedroom and he spends his time alone in the garage, firing his rifle at the woodpile. His next-door neighbor and childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) keeps trying to get close to him, but he pushes her away. In a lesser film, this all might have led to a violent and melodramatic finale, but it merely simmers below the surface, informing his character. Instead, the most emotional scenes with Homer take place in smaller ways, such as when we see that he is not as self-sufficient as he seems, and needs his father’s help every night to remove his prostheses before he goes to sleep.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a great film, and should be seen by everyone who loves movies and is interested in the post-war era. It’s long — just short of three hours — but it didn’t feel long to me. The running time allows its story to develop naturally as the characters enter and re-enter one another’s lives. It also felt more real than any other movie I’ve seen this year. (I can’t think of another movie that wasn’t about alcoholism that featured so many scenes of its characters getting realistically drunk.) And despite all the personal difficulties its characters face, it’s ultimately an uplifting film, full of quiet hope for the future.