Movie Reviews: Force Of Evil (1948) & Undertow (1949)

Today I’m going to cover two crime films I saw somewhat recently, before the memory fades because it’s been so long, or because the movies are that mediocre.

Force Of Evil (1948) – Like Murder By Contract, Force Of Evil is a huge influence on filmmaker Martin Scorsese. That’s literally all I can say about the movie, and you can pinpoint that influence on Scorsese’s Casino as there’s a plot point about listening carefully on the phone for police wiretaps. Other than that, well, it’s kind of moody, and it is a noir film because the main character should definitely know better. Actor John Garfield is a lawyer who helps consolidate control of gambling for a mobster client, at the expense of his much older doesn’t-look-like-him-at-all brother (Thomas Gomez, first Hispanic American nominated for an Oscar) who also operates an illegal gambling operation. Garfield & friends tip the cops off on a daily basis and Garfield keeps telling Gomez to pack it in, but the other gangsters lose patience with this plan and, well, people are backstabbed and nearly everyone is thrown to the wolves (police) in an attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of a younger innocent employee of Gomez’s, but there’s still tragedy. It looks pretty good but it was otherwise pretty boring. Definitely can see how other filmmakers were interested in the drama that is created from criminals’ personal relationships, but otherwise it’s not the most exciting film noir, and yeah it has a sad ending…but siblings, what did you THINK would happen? I’m not saying it’s bad, and if you’re interested in what makes Scorsese Scorsese, then check it out.

Garfield’s career, like many other actors of this time, came to a halt when he refused to give anyone up to the HUAC and then died of a heart attack at 39. Sheesh. I watched this on DVD as it didn’t seem to be available to be streamed. That’s a bummer about Netflix these days, there’s almost NO old movies. Not even public domain stuff. Speaking of, the other movie…

Undertow (1949) – I typed in “Noir” on YouTube as I often do and this was the first to pop up. I don’t know how they choose it or why the order changes, but that’s not the worst way to see a movie I never heard of before. This is a pretty enjoyable thriller crime thriller and mystery, but only a mystery if you can’t count the number of characters because there’s only so many suspects in the 70-something minute film. It’s also directed by William Castle, but long before he would come up the idea to have someone dressed as police officers to storm the theater during showings to see if they could find Tony.

Who’s Tony? Tony is a former low life criminal gangster who lost a friend in The War and then felt obliged to move in on his late friend’s family business as a partner (legally). We meet Tony as he bumps into his friend Morgan at Morgan’s casino. Tony is on his way to Chicago to propose to his old flame, Sally, who happens to be the niece of the mobster both Morgan & Tony used to report to, Jim. It sounds like Jim ran Tony out of town a long time ago, and Tony would have to convince Jim that he’s out of the racket in order to be with Sally.

While at the casino, Tony helps a young lady, Ann, throw craps for the first time, and she wins. He whisks her away before she can get taken by Morgan’s cronies who are fixing the games, and then happens to sit next to her on the plane to Chicago. She’s won over by his otherwise oblivious charm, because he can’t tell how he’s winner her over just before he describes how he’s going to get married. They arrive in Chicago, and he’s stopped by the police, who warn Tony to head back regardless of how legit Tony plans to be, especially with the bad blood between Tony and Jim.

Well, on his way to see Jim, Tony is ambushed and beaten and then shot in the arm. He reawakens and knows that he must the victim of some kind of frame up, and every which way keeps bumping into people who are like “HEY! That guy is hurt! He must have killed someone he had a falling out with seven years ago!” That’s right, the unseen mobster patriarch Jim and uncle of the woman he loves is dead. Tony’s in a tight spot, so he finds the completely innocent Ann whose life doesn’t deserve this kind of violent drama and, duh, she willingly hides him out at her place. This is the 40s, so back then, ladies, a guy you met once on an airplane who shows up that night, bleeding and wielding a gun? It was safe to help him out. Sure, why not.

Ann sets up a meeting with Tony & Sally, and Sally believes him, but the cops and some of Jim’s men are ready to take him down. Tony knows he was in a building with a distinctive look on the inside when he was shot before being knocked out, and a cop friend who figures out Tony might be innocent and Ann help him on his search.

Who tipped the cops off that Tony was coming to Chicago? Well, like I said, there’s only so many characters in this movie, right? How many did Tony meet and talk to? Pretty easy for everyone but Tony to figure this one out, with a heartbreaking twist for Tony once he’s confronted with the truth.

Tony’s kind of a dummy, the friendly police is too much of a plot convenience, but that’s part of the otherwise fun and corny adventure. There’s a few great shots of Chicago as Tony tries to ditch police officers tailing him on a few occasions, and definitely an intense shot of the building corridor as certain characters get their way-too-spelled-out just desserts before Tony is cleared.

I’m sure there’s plenty to talk about the cast, but I’ll focus on Bruce Bennett, who was formerly Harold Brix – Brix played Tarzan in the 1930’s. He changed him name in the next decade and had a pretty long and healthy career.

 

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