July 31, 2012

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“According to materials contained in the PCA [Production Code Administration] files in the AMPAS Library, PCA director Joseph I. Breen objected to ‘the completely anti-social basic theme of this story, which presents wrong as right and right as wrong, in violation of both the letter and spirit of the Production Code.’” –Force of Evil entry, American Film Institute Catalog

In 1946, John Garfield’s contract with Warner Brothers expired. Instead of re-signing, or moving to another studio, Garfield signed on with the independent Enterprise Productions. Bringing together a group of artists who were communists, or communist sympathizers, Enterprise made an inflammatory group of nine films before folding, after which many of its members were blacklisted, including directors Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky. Two of their features, Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948), respectively, ended up in the Republic Pictures library, and are being released today on Blu-Ray from Olive Films, in strong transfers. Garfield was eager to make a statement with Enterprise, telling PM Magazine in this period that:

I want to make pictures with a point – I know I gotta continue to appear in pictures like Postman [The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946]. I know I gotta retain my position of value at the box office, but I also want to be available in between for the kind of picture that’s harder to do but may turn out to be more interesting. Maybe in the next few years I’ll make so many mistakes I’ll kill my career. I can afford the chance. There’s fear in Hollywood about tackling dangerous subjects, difficult subjects. I feel I owe it to myself to be available when some enterprising people want to try something tough.

Enterprise productions was formed by David L. Loew, Charles Einfeld, and silent partner A. Pam Blumenthal. Loew was a son of MGM founder Marcus Loew, and left the studio to pursue an independent producing career in 1935, working with directors like Jean Renoir (on The Southerner (1945)) and Albert Lewin (The Moon and Sixpence (1942)). Einfeld was the former advertising and publicity director at Warner Brothers, and therefore familiar with Garfield, while Blumenthal helped them garner a $10 million line of credit from Bank of America to finance their first six films. Garfield and his business partner Bob Roberts set-up their Roberts Productions shingle under the Enterprise banner.

It was an idealistic endeavor, which actor Norman Lloyd described as “Nirvana”, and then-Assistant Director Robert Aldrich judged that, “For about two and a half or three years before it went down the drain, I would guess that it had a better esprit de corps, and more interest and excitement going for it among the employees, from the laborer to the star, than any place in Hollywood.” Garfield and Roberts’ first film at Enterprise was Body and Soul (1948), and the talent on-board is staggering. Along with Aldrich as AD, it attracted Rossen as director, Polonsky as screenwriter, James Wong Howe as cinematographer and Robert Parrish as editor. Dialogue director (and later a director period) Don Weis told Garfield biographer Robert Nott that “I was amazed that everyone in the company with the exception of [cameraman] Jimmy Howe was involved politically. Every day they [Polonsky, Roberts and Garfield] would come down from the office with a petition for us to sign, for good things like housing for the poor, and I signed everything. “

Garfield bought the rights to the life story of Barney Ross, a Jewish boxer and decorated WWII soldier who was born on Rivington St. in the Lower East Side of NYC, just like Garfield. Ross was born Dov-Ber Rosofsky, son of a Talmudic scholar, while Garfield was originally named Jacob Garfinkle, born to a clothes presser and part-time cantor. It was a deeply personal story to Garfield, although the story’s ethnic character was drained by the PCA, who even objected to showing bouts between a black and a white fighter, although the fight between Garfield and Canada Lee remains in the film. The script had to be heavily revised by Polonsky in any case, telling a profoundly sad version of the familiar rise and fall boxing narrative, as Charley Davis (Garfield) spurns his neighborhood sweetheart and family for the lure of big money promised by mobbed up promoter Roberts (Lloyd Gough). Charley’s Jewishness is never stated directly, but is strongly implied by a neighbor who states that, “over in Europe, Nazis are killing people like us, just because of their religion. But here, Charley Davis is champion.”

The previous winter the N.Y. State Boxing Commission investigated bribery charges, to much publicity and little results, which inspired the powerfully damning depiction of corruption in the Roberts character. His money instantly degrades, as seen when punch-drunk Ben (the civil-rights activist Canada Lee) refuses to take the bills Roberts contemptuously throws onto the ground at his feet. Ben refuses, but Charley picks it up and forces him to take it, telling him that cash has no memory.

This off-hand character moment in Body and Soul becomes the central theme of Force Of Evil (1948), in which the phrase is turned around into, “money has no moral opinions”, and capitalism exists as a pit of despair in which all of the film’s characters sink. J. Hoberman writes in An Army of Phantoms that “The threat in this openly anticapitalist gangster film is the system itself.” Both written and directed by Polonsky this time (adapted from Ira Wolfert’s 1943 novel Tucker’s People), it retains many of Body and Soul‘s crew, including Aldrich and Weis, although now George Barnes would handle the cinematography’s canted angles and haunting chiaroscuro. The compositions often look like they are for a horror film, with the monster around every corner. The largest bogeyman in this stretch of Wall Street is Tucker (Roy Roberts) a mobster looking to take over the numbers rackets in town, aided by Joe Morse (Garfield), a convictionless lawyer. Tucker even wants to absorb the Mom and Pop bookie service run by Joe’s brother Leo. This relentless amassing of power, with little regard for the welfare of its workers, is the bluntly drawn and bleakly devastating metaphor for the post-war capitalist system that Polonsky and his collaborators were agitating against.

They lost. Enterprise Productions’ largest production, Arch of Triumph (1948), was a box office disaster. Set among refugees in pre-WWII Paris, they again attracted great talents, including Ingrid Bergman and director Lewis Milestone, but their investment went bust. So just as Force of Evil’s indictment of capitalism was hitting screens, Bank of America was seizing the assets of Roberts Productions, after their failure to make their loan payments. Garfield, Polonsky and Rossen were called before the House Un-American Activities committee in 1951, refused to name names, and were blacklisted. Garfield then died of a heart attack on May 1st, 1952.

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