Just a few years after getting an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for 1947’s Body And Soul, Abraham Polonsky refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and landed on the Hollywood blacklist, short-circuiting one of the most promising careers in the business. HUAC’s pursuit of Polonsky was no ideological witch-hunt: He was a Marxist until his death in 1999, and a member of the Communist Party at the time, and later in life, he was bluntly outspoken about filmmakers who did name names, like Edward Dmytryk and Elia Kazan. (On the occasion of Kazan’s honorary Oscar, he talked of wanting to design a moveable headstone, so “if they bury that man in the same cemetery, they can move me.”) After more than a decade in exile, Polonsky would resurface to write 1959’s Odds Against Tomorrow under a pseudonym—he wasn’t officially credited until 1996—and finally got his name back for Don Siegel’s crime drama Madigan in 1968, but the Red Scare robbed him of some prime creative years.
The Blu-ray reissues of Body And Soul and Force Of Evil, Polonsky’s stunning 1948 directorial debut, are a testament to his unique talent for using the noir genre to plumb moral depths, but they also make his politics clear. Beyond a great John Garfield performance in each, the common denominator between the two films is the corrosive power of money, which draws its characters away from their families and from themselves. In his video introduction for Force Of Evil, Martin Scorsese calls Garfield “the face of moral conflict,” and in both films, he serves as the audience’s surrogate, a fundamentally decent and caring man who has lost his way. Viewers could chalk it up to mere greed—which is a vice among all but the most fervent capitalists—but Polonsky takes a much broader tack, suggesting that the system itself destroys those who participate in it.
Directed by Robert Rossen (The Hustler) and photographed in luminous black and white by James Wong Howe (Hud), Body And Soul remains one of the great boxing movies, but its real concerns are the devastating blows that land outside the ring. Garfield stars as a penniless scrapper who wants to take care of his mother and marry a good woman, and he decides to use his fists to do it. “Fight for something, not money,” his mother warns, but as Garfield works his way up the ranks, he allows himself to get roped in by a match-fixing gangster who promises big prize purses and a shot at the title. Rossen and Polonsky make their moral case starkly—perhaps too starkly at times—but there’s enormous power in the premise of a fighter whose muscle and guile defeat all comers in the arena, but is rendered as vulnerable as a kitten the moment the final bell rings. He’s just another body, easily disposed of when the next young contender comes along.
Much like Body And Soul, Force Of Evil delves into a criminal underworld where pitiless thugs dictate the fates of ordinary men, but Polonsky makes a more damning case against the legitimacy of capitalism itself. Here, the numbers racket becomes a metaphor for Wall Street itself, where big businesses game the system in their favor and squeeze out the little guys who want a piece of the pie. Garfield plays a slick big-city lawyer who provides legal support for a rigged numbers game; Thomas Gomez plays his brother, a small-timer who runs his own independent operation and refuses to kowtow to Garfield’s clients, even when they manipulate the numbers in a bid to put him and others out of business. Beyond the film’s radical implication that there’s no difference between the numbers racket and the stock market, Garfield’s relationship with his brother is a wrenching example of a man coming to terms with his own corrupted soul and seeking some form of absolution. “To love you is to love something rotten in myself,” says his love interest, with sympathy in her voice that’s utterly devastating. Polonsky loves him, too, but shows that once he’s sold out, no amount of money can help him buy his way back.
Key features: Nothing on Body And Soul, but Scorsese’s enthusiastic support of Force Of Evil is the key reason why it’s been salvaged from the B-movie trash heap.