Force of Evil (1948), is a great film noir that seems to have been unjustly forgotten.  Directed by Abraham Polonsky, it has an amazing cast and features a compelling narrative that’s stylishly told.  It’s also beautifully shot by George Clemens, ASC, who went on to become the principal cinematographer on the late ’50’s-early-60’s TV series, The Twilight Zone.

            Apart from the movie’s obvious attributes, you’ll also notice the high level of craft shown by the actors.  I try to ensure good eyelines when I shoot but their precision here is remarkable.  Back when Force of Evil was made, the players had been well-schooled by their studios.  They knew that when the camera is on them in an over-the-shoulder situation, the trick was to always look into the opposing person’s eye that was closest to the lens – and to try not to blink.  Odd as it may seem, this minor technique renders a better presentation of the face, hence an opportunity for a more effective performance.  On the few occasions that I’ve explained this to new or younger actors on set, I’ve been met with blank stares.  I don’t know…  Maybe we need to bring back the whip-cracking studio bosses of old.

            A related moment occurs at about the 0:53:18 mark on the DVD – and only a true cinematography-obsessive would notice it.

In the raking shot of John Garfield across Roy Roberts, you can see that Roberts’ eyes are fixed away from Garfield – but they appear to be focused directly upon him as he speaks.  It’s a little example of optical sleight of hand and is much more interesting than the standard over-the-shoulder shot.  The illusion that these two men are locked in on each other also supports the subtext of the scene in a small but very important way.

            Then, check out the scene (0:57:18) during which Garfield enters his office.  It’s late at night and the place is dark and deserted.  The easy, natural way in which he ultimately lands in his tiny slivers of light will give you the chills.  With today’s trend toward “lighting the room” so as to let the actors roam where they like, such mastery deserves our respect.

          On the non-cinematographic side, there’s a great deal to comment on as well.  For example, be prepared for the violent events that unfold at about the 1:04:00 mark.  The use of string music is so unusual and out of context that it becomes instantly memorable…and very disturbing.  There’s some incredible dialogue, too.  Any pretension or heavy handedness in the way it reads is negated by the brilliance of the performances.  Consider this exchange between two great character actors, Roy Roberts and Sid Tomack:

Roberts: How’d you get like that?

Tomack: Like a man with two heads or a dope with a million bucks, it’s my gift.

Garfield also gets his share of sharp lines:

“A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn’t have said.”

“A man doesn’t tell lies at midnight.”

There’s so much more to learn from Force of Evil – and every lesson can be applied to what we do today. Do yourself a favor and hunt this one down!



  1. Fascinating comments on eye lines and acting mastery. Thanks for the introduction to Force of Evil. I’ll be looking for it and watching soon.

  2. Great points all Richard. For fun, I was recently watching a few episodes of the James Garner Maverick TV series from the 1950s. The lit interiors are what one might expect from that era of television. But the night shots outside, or in dimly lit rooms inside, or not supposed to be lit at all, are startling in their use of sketchy hard to see details; not what conventional wisdom would expect from that era. Bordering on Gordon Willis lack of information. Oh, and James Garner is pretty hysterical too…

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