March 26

Filmlab: Best finance movies of all time – 7. Force of Evil

There are two shots of Wall Street in Force of Evil, Abraham Polonsky’s 1948 gangster noir about a young lawyer, played by John Garfield, trying to get ahead in the world by finessing financial transactions for the mob. The first – shot from up high, bright sunshine casting a shadow over the brokers scurrying ant-like across the street below – is accompanied by Garfield’s voice informing us that the following day, 4 July, he’s intending to make his first million dollars: “An exciting day in any man’s life.” The second – shot from street level, dawn light casting an apocalyptic pallor over the now-deserted financial district – shows Garfield towards the end of the film, hauling himself away, like a wounded animal into the shadows.

What transpires in between is a savage tale of greed and betrayal, in which society as a whole is revealed to be corrupt and decency can only be gauged by the degree of remorse shown for one’s own misdeeds. Garfield’s character, Joe, a corporation lawyer for the mob, is engaged in a temporarily illegal enterprise to help his gangster client turn the numbers racket into a legitimate daily lottery. Fixing the draw to favour the Independence Day superstitions of the nickel-and-dime bettors, their plan is to seize control of the rackets by wiping out the cash reserves of the so-called “policy banks” – the backroom collection offices that act as depositories for the limited funds of those working-class suckers who bet on the numbers instead of paying their weekly insurance premiums. It’s a plan that will allow them to monopolise and corporatise the city’s biggest policy banks by stepping in at the 11th hour and acting as financiers – but it’s a plan that will also destroy Joe’s soul-sick older brother Leo, a policy-bank owner whose refusal to do business with gangsters means that Joe’s knowledge of the impending “crash” can’t save him.

Force of Evil’s depiction of illegal banking, fraudulent enterprise and outright criminality might be said to have been a particularly dark analogy for a financial system still reeling from the after-effects of the Crash of ‘29, the Great Depression, the disruption of the Second World War and the swift postwar crackdown on organised labour, but Polonsky – a committed Marxist whose nascent career was brought to a halt just three years later when he was blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee – treats it instead as an inextricable part of that system. The way Joe’s disapproving law-firm partner turns a blind eye to the coffer-replenishing finances his partner’s dubious dealings are bringing in; the newsagent brazenly running numbers from his stall in the lobby of Joe’s fancy Wall Street office building; the police and politicians whose influence can be bought for the right price: everyone in this film has been tainted by their participation in culture that lives by the law of money, which – as Joe points out – has “no moral opinion”.

It’s a point Martin Scorsese – Force of Evil’s biggest champion – made recently (and less effectively) in The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s also a point that underscores the tragic nature of the film: the realisation that, once in, there’s no way out. No matter how poetically Joe’s brother – an honest man forced by circumstance into a dishonest profession – resists Joe’s attempts to draw him deeper into the criminal underworld, there’s no escaping his fate, something Joe gradually realises is also true of himself as the violence surrounding his enterprise begins to escalate.

When Joe eventually slinks away from his office on Wall Street – New York Stock Exchange on one side, Federal Hall on the other, the anticipatory ebullience of his “exciting day” now replaced by silent despondency – Polonsky’s camera hangs back, watching him get smaller and smaller as a statue of George Washington (something just visible in the film’s opening shot) remains giant and godlike on the edge of the frame. The statue marks the spot where the first president of the United States was sworn into office, but its repurposed symbolism is clear: this sickness is not solitary; it’s systemic.

Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 26 March 2014