Force of Evil ★★★½

Initially intriguing characterizations and convincing sleaze in this noir from MGM, which lacks mystery even in its best moments, give way to rote organized crime programmer nonsense that puts me right to sleep. John Garfield stars as a corrupt lawyer lending phony legitimacy to a numbers racket and participating in a scam that's bound to put his paranoid, unhealthy brother (Thomas Gomez, quite good) out of business. It's bleak and violent all right, but its protagonist -- in the script as well as in Garfield's performance -- lacks depth or discernible motivation. By the time of the ludicrous if well-photographed ending, his latest change of mood and heart is practically baked in to our expectations because so little of what he's previously done made any sense in the first place. The romantic subplot feels even more tacked-on than usual for noir, and flirts with uncomfortably underlined "women say no but they mean yes" messaging. There's lots of potential here, especially in the often lurid depiction of people cracking under pressure, but none of it really adds up. I'd like to watch a movie about Gomez's character, or better yet, Paul McVey's hapless bookkeeper.

I'll be frank: organized crime bores the living shit out of me; as soon as it was clear this was going down That Road I really had to force myself to finish it. I guess it just seems like such a narrative dead end to me, essentially because the enemy is always a faceless infallible force whose entire purpose is to be invincible, so there's nowhere deeply interesting to go (at least not in a feature film). I don't even like The Godfather and tolerate Goodfellas strictly on a stylistic basis. The only significant exceptions so far have been Hawks' Scarface, Walsh's Regeneration and Sternberg's Underworld; in all three cases I suspect my admiration of the form totally overwhelmed my repulsion at the content (though major props for the fact that in Polonsky's movie we're not expected to find the villains cool or respectable, only cheaply terrifying). It turns out my affection for pre-code crime dramas and silent pictures offers a better counterpoint than noir, or maybe -- as I've gradually come to suspect -- I just like noir less than I've always thought I did. I've read that others consider this a hallmark of the genre and I just don't see it. But I don't really get Laura either, for entirely different reasons.