Chances are you don’t recognize the name Abraham Polonsky. That’s no surprise. Polonsky (1910-1999) was one of the all-time Hollywood might-have-beens — no, worse than that, ought-to-have-beens. Nominated for a screenwriting Oscar in 1948, for the boxing picture “Body and Soul,” he directed his first movie that year, “Force of Evil.” He co-wrote it, too. At once gangster picture, film noir, character study, and populist polemic, it’s one of those rare films that’s truly unclassifiable. Owing to the Hollywood blacklist, Polonsky never got the chance to enlarge its genre of one. He didn’t direct again until 1969, with the revisionist western “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.” By then the movies had changed, so had the times, and Polonsky made three. An exceptional talent went unfulfilled.
Martin Scorsese, who’s said that “Force of Evil” helped shape “Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull,” and “GoodFellas,” has called the interruption of Polonsky’s career “one of the great losses to American film and world cinema.” That’s something of an exaggeration. Jean Vigo dying at 29, that’s a great loss. But anyone who watches “Body and Soul” and “Force of Evil,” which Olive Films releases on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, can see what Scorsese was driving at.
Both films star John Garfield. Garfield came out of New York’s Group Theatre, whose dedication to naturalistic, Stanislavskian acting, and left-wing politics deeply informs both films.
The playwright most associated with the Group Theatre was Clifford Odets. Polonsky was Odets with the fat (and pretense) cut away but the pulpy verve and Yiddishe energy very much intact. There’s a jazziness to Polonsky’s writing. The dialogue is often overripe, but with a compensatory snap, crackle, and bop. Not even Odets ever wrote consecutive sentences as pungent (or mathematical) as the ones a boxing kingpin gets off in “Body and Soul”: “Everything is addition or subtraction. The rest is just conversation.”
Not quite as harsh, but every bit as quotable, is this observation from a manager: “Kids win this and that every day, thousands of them. One out of a hundred fights professionally, one out of a thousand’s worth watching, one in a million’s worth coffee and doughnuts.” William Conrad (a man who knew his doughnuts) plays the manager. Good as those lines are, they’re even better intoned in that braised-magma voice of his.
The fighter Conrad manages is, of course, Garfield. “I forbid!” his mother says when his character, Charlie, announces he wants to go professional. “Better to buy a gun and shoot yourself!” Polonsky gives Garfield the final word. “You need money to buy a gun.” Quick with his mouth, and even quicker with his fists, Charlie’s bright, all right — but nowhere near as bright as he thinks he is. He’s as much chump as champ — something it takes him the whole movie to realize.
Although it’s Polonsky’s dialogue that stands out, he also came up with an elaborate flashback structure (which sets up Garfield’s knockout exit line, “What are you going to do, kill me? Everybody dies”) and several highly imaginative touches. That bit in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where Karen Allen tends to Harrison Ford’s wounds by kissing them? It’s a direct steal from Polonsky, who has Lilli Palmer do it to Garfield.
“Body and Soul” is often sentimental, even cliched (the mother who doesn’t want her boy to fight, the kid from the streets with a chip on his shoulder). But it’s also innovative and unpredictable. The great cinematographer James Wong Howe shot some of the boxing scenes on roller skates, and director Robert Rossen (who’d go on to make “All the King’s Men” and “The Hustler”) creates a tough, knowing tone. A major character (Canada Lee) is black, and his race is just taken for granted, something unheard of at the time. There’s an explicit Holocaust reference, and the movie has a pronounced class consciousness. When Garfield’s character temporarily goes bad, it’s the good life that does it to him. Polonsky’s attitude toward wealth finds its clearest expression when Lee’s character faces serious medical expenses and Garfield offers to pick them up. “Here, take the money, Ben. It’s not like people. It’s got no memory. It don’t think.”
“Think” rhymes with “stink,” and bad as money and its influence are in “Body and Soul,” it’s a lot worse in “Force of Evil.” The first shot is of Wall Street, and much of the movie takes place on the Fourth of July. Garfield is a name partner in a downtown law firm. He’s a lawyer for the mob — or, as the movie rather transparently calls it, “the Combination.”
Garfield has come up with a scheme to make the numbers racket legal and bring all the earnings to his client. The catch is that his older brother (Thomas Gomez) runs a small-time numbers operation. Garfield tries to finesse things so that the deal still comes off but his brother isn’t hurt. Gomez knows better. “All that Cain did to Abel was murder him,” he observes to Garfield. It’s a very Polonsky line.
Garfield is terrific. He’s poised between the runty, roostery vigor of his earlier performances and the precipitous decline to come. He’d die of a coronary less than four years later. The preening toughness has grown ravaged around its bespoke edges; there is far too much knowingness in these eyes, and no amount of confidence in his patter can mask it.
Yet it’s Gomez, not Garfield, who gives the truly unforgettable performance: an overweight, careworn man whose every motion betrays the diseased heart that will kill him. People in the movies weren’t supposed to look this stricken (not for another two decades, anyway). Everything about him is sweaty. Hair damp, complexion moist, manner wilted, he is a puddle of defeat.
Gomez’s character is what the Combination — or system — reduces the average man to. “We’re normal financiers,” Garfield explains at one point, no irony intended. Earlier in the movie, Gomez’s milquetoast accountant squeaks, “I don’t want to have anything to do with gangsters!” “What do you mean gangsters?” replies the hood he’s said this to, sincerely baffled. “It’s business.” Not until “The Godfather,” nearly a quarter century later, would a Hollywood film make so explicit, and persuasive, an equation between business and organized crime.
For Polonsky, it’s the whole system that’s rotten. Politics for him is ultimately more a matter of morality than ideology — which is one reason these films remain resonant. The weakest element in “Force of Evil” is Beatrice Pearson’s ingenue. (The fact you’ve never heard of her — she appeared in only one other film — is not unrelated to said weakness.) That said, Pearson does get the single most devastating line in the movie. “What are you celebrating?” she asks Garfield. “A clear conscience,” he replies. “Oh, whose?” she says. The question’s not just directed at him.