Force of Evil, a noir film from 1948 was greeted with mixed reviews upon release and, seventy years later, it’s pretty easy to see why. While the noir plot–an indictment of the numbers racket–is pretty standard, there are a couple of elements that derail its enjoyment as a pure exponent of the breed.
In the first place, it seems like the director (or the producer or the cinematographer or someone) decided that noir sensibilities weren’t quite good enough for them, and the film attempts to transcend the genre, with mixed results. So the characters have redeeming qualities and unexpected psychological depths, while the film itself was shot with a dreamlike quality which reinforces the fact that nothing is quite as hard-edged as it seems. The ending is left open.
But none of that makes the film better. The noir genre is defined by its contrasts of light and shadow. Even when the good guy is ambiguous, he s certainly good in his context. The stark difference between the truly dark and the kind of grey is filmed with sharp definition which reinforces the sense. This film loses its way on those counts.
On the plus side, it’s a 1940’s crime film, so it can’t be all bad, and it has certain action scenes and an interesting pairing of noir femmes, one oh-so-light (yet undeniably self-destructive) and one deeply dark (who is out to destroy everything), which give it a strong push in the genre direction.
I find it interesting that this one was selected for the National Film Registry’s preservation program, as well as being listed in the 1001 Films list. Why, I ask myself is it there?
I suppose it’s because modern critics appreciate its attempt to transcend its genre and become a more valuable piece of art.
I see this kind of misguided attempt in many forms of art, but perhaps the place where it has done most damage (and this is just my opinion, your mileage may vary) is in science fiction and fantasy literature. What was once an escapist genre that people could relate to has become a minefield. A book with a gorgeous, evocative image on the front might hide a literary experiment or a political manifesto between the covers.
Readers, of course, flock away from that sort of thing, and the genre, while slightly de-ghetto-ized is not as popular as it was in the late nineties (especially fantasy). And now the political questions are reaching Hollywood science fiction and fantasy (even Star Wars, argh), so we can expect a decline in popularity there as well in the short term.
If anything, Force of Evil is evidence that none of this is new, so when you’re scratching your head about the heavy-handed political statements or sudden intrusion of the art film mentality into what you expected to be a fun way to spend a couple of hours, you can take comfort in the fact that popular entertainment will never learn from its mistakes–it will just let a future generation of critics turn the pig’s ear into a silk purse…
But when you actually watch the film, all that porcinity is still evident.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His most recent novel is a thriller / horror crossover into which literary pretensions have not intruded. It’s called Ice Station Death, and you can check it out here.