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Tag Archives: John Garfield

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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Gentleman’s Agreement (Nov. 11, 1947)

Director Elia Kazan’s fourth film, Gentleman’s Agreement, dominated the 20th Academy Awards.

It was nominated for eight Oscars and took home three — best picture for producer Darryl F. Zanuck, best director for Kazan, and best supporting actress for Celeste Holm.

It was also incredibly popular, and was the eighth highest grossing film of the year, earning more than $4 million at the box office.

This was a remarkable feat for a sober black and white drama about anti-Semitism, especially considering that most of the ten highest grossing films of 1947 were either comedies or Technicolor spectacles.

Before embarking on this project, I’d never had much desire to see Gentleman’s Agreement, despite my love of Kazan’s other films. It has a reputation for being heavy-handed, and I dislike movies with good intentions that spoon-feed the audience a simplistic message.

So I was really happy to discover that Gentleman’s Agreement is a much more subtle and thought-provoking film than its reputation suggests. It’s a little dry in stretches, but it wasn’t nearly as preachy as I was expecting.

In fact, it’s still a unique movie because it addresses not active, virulent anti-Semitism but the silent majority that allows prejudice to flourish. In other words, if there are ten people at a table and one person tells a nasty joke about Jews and the other nine people either chuckle politely or feel offended but don’t say anything, the problem is not the one anti-Semite, but the other nine people.

Most movies made after Gentleman’s Agreement still focus on active, violent hatred, which lets the audience off the hook to some degree. Someone can watch Mississippi Burning (1988) and come away with the feeling that they’re not a racist, because they’d never burn a cross in a black family’s yard or participate in a lynching.

Gentleman’s Agreement, on the other hand, never really lets the audience off the hook, and now that I’ve seen it, I suspect that part of its reputation for preachiness comes from the discomfort it causes.

For instance, there’s a great scene in which writer Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who is pretending to be Jewish in order to write an exposé on anti-Semitism, tries to get a hotel manager to tell him if the hotel is restricted. The manager refuses to answer the question, but still steers Green out of the hotel, saying things like “Maybe you would be more comfortable in another establishment.” The viewer expects Green to get somewhere and it’s incredibly frustrating when he doesn’t. Eventually he leaves and all the people in the lobby watch him go. Probably many of them feel bad about what’s happening, but no one speaks up. It’s a maddening, intensely uncomfortable scene, and begs the question, “What would you do if no one else was speaking up?”

Another scene that really stuck with me was the one in which Green’s son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) comes home crying after a group of boys call him a “stinking kike” and “dirty yid.” Green’s fiancée Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) is upset, as anyone would be, but she comforts Tommy by hugging him and telling him that it’s all a mistake, and he isn’t really Jewish.

This causes Green to fly into a rage, and he lectures Kathy that her attitude is what allows prejudice to flourish unchecked.

I think that Gregory Peck’s humorless performance and holier-than-thou attitude is what turns off some viewers, but I couldn’t find fault in the logic of anything he says in the film.

His relationship with his secretary Elaine (June Havoc) is particularly interesting, since she’s Jewish but pretends not to be. Early in the film, when she still believes Green is Jewish, she expresses dismay that the magazine they work for is courting Jewish applicants. She tells Green, “Just let them get one wrong one in here and it’ll come out of us. It’s no fun being the fall guy for the kikey ones.”

Green’s childhood friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield) tells him that he’s having such strong reactions to anti-Semitism because he’s experiencing it all at once. Dave grew up experiencing subtle prejudice, so he’s learned to filter a lot of it out. There’s something else, however, that I think is unspoken in the film, which is that Green is experiencing the passion of the newly converted.

He may not have converted to Judaism, but he’s committed to his subterfuge, and takes all the slings and arrows of anti-Semitism intensely personally.

Apparently many Hollywood studio heads, most of whom were Jewish, didn’t want Darryl F. Zanuck (who wasn’t Jewish) to make Gentleman’s Agreement. They feared that it would stir up trouble, and that directly confronting anti-Semitism would only make things worse.

One of the big themes of Gentleman’s Agreement is how wrong-headed this notion is, and that failing to confront things is never the right move.

It’s a really good movie, and not just because its philosophy is “politically correct.” The actors all play their parts perfectly, and it’s a really well-made film about people, and how people relate to each other. Most of the “big ideas” in the film are expressed the way they are in real life — by people who have opinions.

Body and Soul (Nov. 9, 1947)

Body and Soul
Body and Soul (1947)
Directed by Robert Rossen
Enterprise Productions / United Artists

Charlie Davis’s face is a road map. Every scar tells a story, and every story is the same — a bruising boxing match, a big purse, wealth, success, and another step farther away from the people he loves.

This isn’t a spoiler, because we see exactly how far Charlie Davis (John Garfield) has fallen in the first scene of Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul. He wakes from a nightmare, sweat glistening on his scarred face, mournfully crying out a name … “Ben!”

He drives to his childhood home in New York’s Lower East Side and sees his mother (Anne Revere), but neither she nor his old girlfriend, Peg (Lilli Palmer), wants anything to do with him, so he drives to a smoky jazz club to see the beautiful singer Alice (Hazel Brooks). She tells him his manager has been looking for him everywhere. “How does it look, Charlie, the night before the fight, three a.m. and you loaded?” she asks him.

The next morning at the weigh-in, the challenger for the middleweight championship of the world, Jack Marlowe (Artie Dorrell), derides the tired and hungover champ. “All fat,” he sneers. “Nightclub fat … whiskey fat … thirty-five year-old fat.”

Back in his dressing room, Charlie’s gangster manager Roberts (Lloyd Gough) reminds him that he’s being paid $60,000 to throw the fight, and to make it look good.

John Garfield

Most of the rest of the film is told in flashback. We see Charlie’s youth as a tough Jewish kid looking to break into the fight game. His best friend Shorty Polaski (Joseph Pevney) is his manager. Charlie’s father David (Art Smith) is supportive, but his mother wants him to choose a more respectable profession than the sweet science. All of this is strongly reminiscent of Garfield’s previous film, Humoresque (1946), although I have to say that Garfield is more believable as a pugilist than he was as a violinist.

Body and Soul is the first really great boxing film, and it still stands as one of the best. Garfield’s performance as Charlie Davis is pitch-perfect, and James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is gorgeous. As good as Raging Bull (1980) is, it still owes an enormous debt to this film. And so does nearly every boxing picture made after 1947.

To be fair, the rise and fall structure of Body and Soul and most of its story elements were clichéd even at the time of the film’s release. But despite a sense of familiarity, Body and Soul still manages to feel fresh. A lot of this has to do with the final fight, which Howe famously shot with a handheld camera while standing on roller skates. It’s a brilliantly shot and edited sequence, and still thrilling to watch.

Garfield and Dorrell

Body and Soul was director Rossen’s second feature. His first, Johnny O’Clock (1947), was good, but overly complicated and occasionally contrived. Body and Soul, on the other hand, is a punch straight to the gut. It’s moving, brilliantly acted, and one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.

Body and Soul was nominated for three Oscars; John Garfield for best actor, Abraham Polonsky for best original screenplay, and Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish for best film editing, the only category in which it won.

Humoresque (Dec. 25, 1946)

In a recent NY Times interview with David O. Russell, the director of the Oscar-nominated biopic The Fighter (2010), he compared his star, Mark Wahlberg, to John Garfield. Russell said that — like Garfield — Wahlberg is “always kind of in character, because it’s always him in some way.”

Garfield might seem as unlikely a choice as Wahlberg to play a concert violinist, but Humoresque never tries to pass Garfield off as something he wasn’t. His character, Paul Boray, spends his boyhood in what appears to be New York’s Lower East Side, in an immigrant family that has neither the time nor the money for classical music. (Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where he was enrolled in a school for difficult children.) At a high society party, a tipsy young woman refuses to believe Boray when he tells her he’s a violinist. She pegs him as a prizefighter, and refuses to believe he even knows what end of a violin the music comes out of. “It comes out of the middle,” he responds. (Garfield would, however, play a boxer in his next film, Body and Soul.)

There are plenty of hoary cliches in the early sections of the film. Bobby Blake plays Boray as a child. His immigrant father (J. Carrol Naish) works hard and always has his eye on the bottom line, while his mother (Ruth Nelson) is more sensitive, and grows to believe in Paul’s desire to play music. All of these scenes are pretty laborious.

Perhaps director Jean Negulesco wanted to be explicit about how a rough young man from the slums could become a dedicated concert musician, but all of the scenes of Boray’s childhood are less effective than a short sequence later in the picture in which the adult Boray storms out of a recording studio after being forced to cut a major chunk from a piece for radio time. He returns to his apartment to play alone, and the wildness of his music is reflected in a herky-jerky montage of chaotic city streets and teeming masses of people.

Long stretches of Humoresque are told through music, which is beautifully played by violinist Isaac Stern, but there’s plenty of snappy dialogue, too. When Boray gets in an argument with his friend, accompanist, and mentor Sid Jeffers (played by pianist and wit Oscar Levant), Jeffers tells him, “You’ll do all right. You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You’re self-indulgent, self-dedicated, and the hero of all your dreams.” Boray responds, “You oughta try a few dreams yourself, it might make you less cynical. When I look at you, I know what I want to avoid.” (And to give you an idea of the rapidity of the dialogue in the film, that exchange takes place in less than 12 seconds.)

The plot, such as it is, kick in around the 30-minute mark, when Joan Crawford shows up as Mrs. Helen Wright, a myopic, dipsomaniac socialite with a sharp tongue. Her husband is a cultured, sensitive man, but — by his own admission — very weak, and as soon as Helen takes an interest in Paul and his career, tongues begin to wag.

Garfield and Crawford have great chemistry, and both are good enough actors to give their relationship depth. It’s unclear for a time exactly what each wants from the other, but her alcoholism and his deep-seated anger make for plenty of stormy scenes. At one point, Paul blows up and yells at her, “Well, you didn’t do any of this for me, really. You did it for yourself, the way you buy a racehorse, or build a yacht, or collect paintings. You just added a violin player to your possessions, that’s all.”

In Bosley Crowther’s review of Humoresque in the December 26, 1946, issue of the NY Times, he wrote, “The music, we must say, is splendid — and, if you will only shut your eyes so that you don’t have to watch Mr. Garfield leaning his soulful face against that violin or Miss Crawford violently emoting (‘She’s as complex as a Bach fugue,’ Oscar says), and if you will only shut your ears when folks are talking other such fatuous dialogue, provided by Zachary Gold and Clifford Odets, you may enjoy it very much.”

I love Crowther’s reviews. Maybe if I’d been around when he was writing them I would have resented the stranglehold he had on public perception, but in retrospect they’re fantastically entertaining. I liked Humoresque more than he did, but I don’t disagree with his assessment. One has to take into account his longstanding hatred of Joan Crawford, of course, but by the time the credits rolled I was more moved by the music than by any of the vacuous melodrama.

Nobody Lives Forever (Nov. 1, 1946)

Jean Negulesco’s Nobody Lives Forever is far from a great film, but it’s crackerjack entertainment. Warner Bros. had been making crime pictures for 16 profitable years at this point. While the heyday of the Warner gangster film may have been in the ’30s, this is a fine example of the quality product the studio was still churning out in the post-war era.

The screenplay is by W.R. Burnett, whose 1929 novel Little Caesar was made into a film in 1931 starring Edward G. Robinson — the first of Warner’s great cycle of gangster movies. Nobody Lives Forever is based on Burnett’s novel I Wasn’t Born Yesterday, and while it may not be as significant as Little Caesar, it’s still a tight thriller with plenty of snappy tough-guy dialogue.

Besides the good script and excellent direction, the picture works as well as it does because of impeccable casting. When you’re looking for a hard-bitten but essentially decent con man, you can’t ask for a better protagonist than John Garfield. A kindly, doddering old mentor of cons named “Pop”? Who better than Walter Brennan? A sweaty, bug-eyed, paranoid louse named “Doc” who desperately needs one decent score to get back on top? Is George Coulouris available?

Garfield plays Nick Blake, a World War II veteran honorably discharged after being wounded in action. One of his hands doesn’t close quite right, but other than that he’s none the worse for wear. After his sidekick Al Doyle (George Tobias) picks him up from the hospital in Governor’s Island, they take the ferry back to Manhattan, where he reunites with his girl, Toni Blackburn (Faye Emerson). As she sings “You Again” in a swanky nightclub, Nick follows the mustachioed club owner Chet King (Robert Shayne) into his office to settle a beef over money. Rudi Fehr’s editing in this sequence is superb, cutting between Toni on stage, Al standing guard outside the office, and Nick bracing Chet inside.

After Toni finishes her number, Nick confronts her, then kisses her passionately, then smacks her in the face for double crossing him.

The action soon switches to California, where Al has gotten a line on a widow with a $2 million fortune, which — as Pop points out — is a lot of money, even after taxes. Nick, a handsome “diamond in the rough,” is the perfect candidate to pose as a shipping magnate and charm her out of her cash.

Unlike most long cons, Nick, Pop, Doc, Al, and the other members of their crew meet in smoky back rooms as if they’re planning a bank heist. The only problem with the job is that Nick actually starts to fall for the widow, Gladys Halvorsen (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who turns out to be younger than most widows, and a dish to boot.

When Doc pushes Nick to close the deal, he shoots back, “I’m not used to operating with a bunch of cheap, hungry chiselers who should be in the strong-arm racket. Big deals take time.”

Garfield has great chemistry with his co-stars, particularly the ladies, but the relationships take a back seat to the action, especially during the final climactic 20 minutes.

Sure, there are some holes in the plot, and there’s nothing deep about Nobody Lives Forever, but it’s a hell of a way to kill an hour and 40 minutes.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (May 2, 1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Directed by Tay Garnett
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on the 1934 novel by James M. Cain, opens on a lonely stretch of highway outside of Los Angeles, with a shot of a sign hanging outside a gas station that says “Man Wanted.” We’ll soon learn that the sign has a double meaning.

Itinerant drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is hitchhiking from San Francisco, and has thumbed a ride with a nattily dressed man (Leon Ames) whom we’ll soon learn is the local district attorney. Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), the owner of the gas station/lunch counter, runs out and greets Frank, assuming he has come about the job.

It isn’t long before Frank meets Nick’s wife, Cora, (Lana Turner), in one of the best introductions of a sexpot in ’40s cinema. As he’s eating at Nick’s lunch counter, a tube of lipstick rolls across the floor, the camera focuses on it, then pans back along the floor until it comes to rest on Turner’s legs. Cut to Garfield, his breath quickening, then to a full shot of Turner, in a skimpy white two-piece playsuit that would still turn heads today (although her turban might stand out as being a little odd).

As soon as Cora appears, we know Frank will take the job working for Nick just to be close to her. In the book, Nick is a Greek, and described in detail as a physically repulsive character. In the film, he’s just a harmless old fuddy-duddy. Things play out the same, however. Cora leaves a “Dear Nick” letter and she and Frank run off together, but life on the open road, hitchhiking with a delighted-looking Frank, who has two suitcases under his arm, doesn’t agree with Cora or her white blouse, or her white peekaboo toe pumps.

Lana Turner

So they return before Nick comes home and finds the note, and pick up again with their unhappy triangle. One murder attempt designed to look like an accident goes wrong, and after Nick announces that he is selling the business and taking Cora with him, Frank and Cora devise a simpler plan to just get Nick drunk and push him off a cliff in his car.

Technically The Postman Always Rings Twice is a film noir, but it occasionally borders on farce, especially after the murder, and is filmed in a professional and well-lighted but ultimately flat style. Too much of the film’s running time is taken up by courtroom machinations and the gamesmanship between Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn), Frank and Cora’s lawyer, and district attorney Kyle Sackett (Ames). It’s all well-done and entertaining, but in a light and breezy way. There’s the threat of execution in the gas chamber for our two protagonists, but there’s no sense of impending doom during the courtroom proceedings, and with the focus on Ames and Cronyn, it borders on comedy. Things pick up in the noir department towards the end of the picture, but it takes too long to get there, and is undercut by a ridiculous, moralizing denouement. In some editions, Cain’s novel is barely more than 100 pages long, but this film is bloated and overlong at 113 minutes. More minutes in the film than there are pages in the original novel? There oughta be a law.

MGM wasn’t known for this kind of picture. In general, they didn’t even do crime pictures or thrillers. After the runaway success of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity in 1944, however, every big studio released at least one similar picture in an attempt to cash in on the craze, with all the attendant love triangles, murders, and doomed protagonists. What better choice for MGM than another novel by Cain? Especially the one most similar in its basic plot? Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce had already been done, and with a murder plot that was never in the novel, which was more of a straight kitchen sink drama. His 1937 novel Serenade was too weird. It featured a love triangle, but between a spicy Mexican prostitute, her opera-singing boyfriend who loses his voice when he’s tempted by homosexual desires, and the orchestra conductor whose magnetism threatens to draw him into a gay tryst. (Eventually Serenade was made into a film in 1956 starring tenor Mario Lanza and directed by Anthony Mann, but the gay theme was jettisoned.) And his 1942 novel Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, about a town full of gangsters and crooked politicians, seems as though it would have been a more appropriate vehicle for James Cagney or George Raft 10 or 15 years earlier.

So The Postman Always Rings Twice was a natural choice for MGM, a powerhouse of a studio that churned out high-quality product week in, week out. The film works as well as it does because of the presence of Lana Turner, who in 1946 may have been the sexiest woman in Hollywood. John Garfield turns in a credible performance, but he and Turner never quite click. So much of the film is spent setting up and knocking down plot points that their relationship seems almost like an afterthought.

A better adaptation of Cain’s novel is an unauthorized one, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943). (Cain’s publishers sued for copyright infringement, and kept the film off American movie screens until 1976.) Both the grimy working class milieu and desperate, sweaty love affair are better handled in Visconti’s film. The American version is just too sterile.