Force of Evil, Martin Scorcese noted in his personal journey through American films is a film noir made as the gangsters turned themselves from individuals into a corporation, into society. It concerns a young and ambitious corporate lawyer who seeks to make the number's racket (a business managed by gangsters where people bet on which number will turn up in the Daily Paper and get the money if their number does) into a legal enterprise. The lawyer, played by John Garfield, is also helping or seeking to help in the consolidation of the rackett so that various small time numbers banks (including his brother's bank) are forced out of the market so that the gangsters control the entire business, a business which has become legal. All he has to contend with are the inclinations of the gangster he represents, Tucker, to go for his gun in all situations and the presence of the law outside, tapping his phone, not to mention his own demons- a paranoia- and a love of his brother that Tucker wants out.
The film is a fascinating study in many ways therefore of the clash of cultures- between white collar and blue collar criminals, between the thirties world of gangsters and the fifties world of organised crime. The greatest conflict though lies between individual morality and capitalism- take this exchange between the lawyer, Joe, and his brother, Leo,
Leo: The money I made in this rotten business is no good for me, Joe. I don't want it back. And Tucker's money is no good either.
Joe: The money has no moral opinions.
Leo: I find I have, Joe. I find I have.
The sadness of the contrast between these two characters is that Leo's innocence ends up forcing his brother into all sorts of awkward situations- including at one point becoming involved in a criminal enterprise and hence moving from a secure position as Tucker's lawyer to an insecure one as Tucker's employee.
The film though is a really an exposee of Joe's decline and fall. Confidence permeates his entire manner and therefore his entire world- take these lines, the opening lines of the film,
This is Wall Street... and today was important because tomorrow - July Fourth - I intended to make my first million dollars. An exciting day in any man's life. Temporarily, the enterprise was slightly illegal. You see I was the lawyer for the numbers racket.
Joe's confidence is absolute- he will make a million dollars tommorrow- there is no question. Dressed in dapper suits and walking through prestigious offices, he is able to mock his senior partner's Harvard Law education because the next day he will be rich. He beleives his charm can work on the prosecutor looking into the number's racket, he believes that he can save his brother from the gangsters. He believes that he the individual is important within the system- he doesn't realise that he is the natural victim, the fall guy, whose fall is inevitable and desired by all the parties involved. He doesn't realise that the system will consume him- unless he refuses to have any moral concerns whatsoever. Joe beleives in his own powers- he is seriously mistaken.
The film though constantly puts these pressures on characters. Saints seem powerless in a world of villains- Joe's brother Leo employs men and women that noone else will touch and ends with his body dumped in a river, his employees end up getting criminal records. Villains though too are constantly consumed by this world- their words are listened too, the individuals they hurt strike back at them directly. Those characters with moral ambiguity in the film also fall as their desperate attempts to save themselves from the wreckage, either through cunning legal advice (Joe) or through letting the police in on what is happening, end up destroying their own lives. This bleak portrayel suggests that human life in society is almost impossible- that corruption is implicit and that the only alternative to corruption is a naive failure. This film represents the world as a cesspool- touch it and you become become defiled, avoid it and it will erode the foundations of your happiness.
Of course this is a film about criminals- but its a film about criminals which has a lot of links to the real world- cutting across the law with the minimum of legal risk and legal observance isn't unfamiliar to corporate bodies, nor is the way that compromise has to be made in the lives of their employees- even say when it comes to families and friends, most compromises and most legal obfuscations don't end in the disasters that attack our lawyer here. But the overall picture that this film presents is that within a system of selfishness the ties between family, friends, the emotions of human life from anger to pride to love are all weaknesses and all inevitably end up destroying those who seek to exploit the system.
This film is an overly bleak account of what it is to live and work under the market- perhaps its not such an overly bleak account of what it is to be a lawyer for organised crime seeking to become respectable. It is an incredibly powerful film though- some of the scenes endure after the credits have rolled. Just at the end, Joe discovers his brother's body washed up on the edge of the river, and as he clambers down the deserted city streets, we get a visual image of what the film seeks to portray, Joe runs down, leaping over stone walls, his journey framed by bridges and by roads to find his brother's body. He is followed down by his girlfriend- and over the top of this, we hear this soliloquay,
I found my brother's body at the bottom there, where they had thrown it away on the rocks... by the river... like an old dirty rag nobody wants. He was dead - and I felt I had killed him. I turned back to give myself up to Hall; because if a man's life can be lived so long and come out this way - like rubbish - then something was horrible and had to be ended one way or another... and I decided to help.
His brother's body lies at the bottom of an avenue of industrial waste- of the human deformation of the natural world, of the way that industry, that the system treats beauty. A hell visually expressed in tones of grey. In many ways this last journey, down into the depths, forms a perfect coda to the film- Joe's progress though he didn't know it through out is a progress down into grey depths where emotion becomes weakness and wealth paranoia about discovery.
A fascinating film concludes therefore with the ambitious, unambitious, saintly and villainous destroyed. Its an over pessimistic view of human society- but its one worth reminding onesself of every so often.