Film Studies: Never mind communism, Senator McCarthy - what about capitalism?

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The Independent Culture

To be brief, the charge was indecent humbug: if the American movie ever erred in candour, integrity or whatever, it was in its blind love of America. Indeed, there were authentic left-wingers in Hollywood who, prior to the days of Huac, scolded themselves in private for taking the big pay cheques to tell endlessly pro-American stories. But they were in the picture business - what was anyone to do about it?

Well, there is actually one movie in which anyone may fairly discern the outlines of a Marxist attitude - it is Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil, and it is a great film (just emerging on DVD) and one that every American may be proud of. After all, it is another part of the American way that its system of thought can sustain and enjoy harsh self-criticism.

In black-and-white, and lasting only 78 minutes, Force of Evil moves like a whip. Over a view of the dense buildings of Wall Street - grey piles of accumulation - we hear a voice: "This is Wall Street, and today was important, because tomorrow, July 4, I intended to make my first million dollars. An important day in any man's life." The voice is sardonic and dipped in self-loathing; it is John Garfield in the role of Joe Morse, a brilliant young lawyer who works for organised crime. Joe's client is Tucker, a racketeer, who has fixed the lottery system so that next day, July 4, the winning number will be 776. Every patriotic sucker will be happy, but the coincidence will break the small banks in the city - whereupon Tucker plans to buy them out. The ultimate end of capitalism is to have a black toad conglomerate squatting on the city.

What follows might be called a film noir (it was released in 1948, in the midst of the noir cult), but Force of Evil ignores the romantic attitudinising of so much noir. Joe has a brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) who owns one of the small banks. Joe tries to persuade Leo to close for the holiday. But Leo replies that people like to bet for the holiday. There is no sentimentalising of these brothers (as there is, say, in On the Waterfront - a comparable film). Joe and Leo are utterly unalike: as in a parable, their fraternity is part of the idea that all men are brothers. Hence, Joe's gradual discovery - that he should not betray Leo.

Equally, there is a girl in the movie, Doris (Beatrice Pearson), an employee of Leo's to whom Joe is attracted. But she is not the kind of knowing doll familiar from film noir. She is so naïve, so innocent, she is nearly blind, or like a plaything. Her relationship with Joe is not here for romance or sex, or in order to let Joe look good, but as an instrument ready to strip illusion away from Joe's eyes.

There is one other astonishing dynamic in Force of Evil - the dialogue is among the most mannered in the history of American film. It has a rhythm like blank verse, and that poetic is another distancing effect in the film - something that prevents us from taking these characters as dream or identification fantasies, but figures in a theorem. There are times when the beauty of the talk and the zest with which the actors deliver it makes Force of Evil like a stage play. But one of Polonsky's ambitions was to penetrate the lovely sleep-waking of so much noir, the beguiling mixture of reality and the dream, and to introduce a schematic demonstration of the evils of capitalism.

Force of Evil came out of a rare moment in American film, that period just after the end of the war when there was a feeling of how dramatically the American public had been changed by the experience of war and the heavy burdens of victory. That's one reason why noir came into being, and brought with it the rueful unhappy ending that had hardly existed in American film previously. Of course, it was part of the stupidity of McCarthy and his followers that they interpreted this new realism as an anti-American trait.

Enterprise Pictures sprang up in that moment, led by David Loew, with Robert Rossen and Polonsky as leading workmen and then with John Garfield as their house star. They made Body and Soul, a boxing picture, written by Polonsky and directed by Rossen, full of realism in the ring but rather old-fashioned in the family story that frames it. Still, it saw boxing as a pitiless capitalist machine that destroyed its own talent. But Force of Evil is a far bolder film, and far more effective still. Rossen, Polonsky and Garfield all became victims of the Black List - and Polonsky did not direct again until Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, in 1970.

Polonsky was an unashamed radical until the end of his life, by which time people like him had supposedly been rehabilitated. He used to grin his wolfish grin at that pathetic hope. He knew all the ways the Black List persisted. He recalled what a brave new world 1947 had been. And he would have laughed in your face if you told him that now, in this age of allegedly independent film in America, you proposed to tell a story that unpeeled the iniquities of capitalism. "Get paid first!" he might have taunted you. For Polonsky knew just how much at odds with critical thinking American movies were bound to be.

To see Force of Evil today is like a cold shower. You can hardly believe the perilous lucidity that is unfolding. But there it is - a timeless lesson. And maybe you've never heard of it.

'Force of Evil' (DVD, £15.99), is out on 30 January