Abraham Polonsky | 75 mins | TV | PG / PG
Force of Evil comes well recommended, with places on several 1,000 Best Movies lists and inclusion both on They Shoot Pictures…’s 250 Quintessential Noir Films and in the US National Film Registry, not to mention a full 5/5 in Paul Duncan’s consistently handy Pocket Essential Film Noir. But it didn’t work for me.
To be blunt, I found it dull. The romance subplot feels tacked on and implausible, the main gambling plot is often poorly explained. I never felt properly attached to any of the characters — it doesn’t help that the lead is half-villainous, but then that’s worked fine elsewhere — and as the plot rumbles confusingly on I cared less and less, which made it tough to sit through. I was struggling to play catch up too often; in some films this can be part of the point, a virtue, but I didn’t feel like it was deliberate here. It doesn’t help that some events are virtually glossed over — worst of all, the death of a major character, which occurs off-screen and with little explanation.
IMDb notes that the film was cut by 10 minutes to be shown in a double-bill and this is now the only version that survives, which may explain some of these oversights. Despite my complaints, there are good moments, particularly a couple of short sequences that are beautifully directed and edited, but they’re few and far between and to me feel like they belong in a better film.
Duncan’s analysis (Force of Evil is one of seven noirs treated to an extended segment in his book) suggests a more complex reading of the film than I took from it, explaining much as symbolic or metaphorical. Considering I didn’t engage with the film, I’m tempted to see Duncan’s reading as a way of rationalising things that either aren’t there or were flawed, but the film’s wider critical acceptance suggests he may well be right.
Force of Evil has, as I noted at the beginning, come to be “recognized as a masterpiece of the film noir genre” (to quote Wikipedia’s handy summation), so I can’t help but feel I’ve missed something. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve underrated a film — or, indeed, a film noir — only to reassess my opinion with further hindsight. And yet, for that awareness, I can’t imagine ever looking back on this one with increased fondness. Sadly, the only force I experienced was boredom.