Tough and nuggety, an overgrown street kid with a cigarette perpetually slashing from his tight lips, John Garfield, born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, is probably best remembered today for “Body and Soul” (1947) and “Force of Evil” (1948).
Both now available from Olive Films, their titles tell it all: In “Body and Soul,” directed by Robert Rossen, Garfield plays Charlie Davis, a boxing champ up from the slums who gets mired in the mob.
It’s the quintessential Garfield role and one he had been poised to play for years.
In 1937, he’d been turned down for the lead of a musician-turned-pugilist in “Golden Boy” even though playwright and fellow Group Theatre member Clifford Odets wrote it for him. (It was decided he needed more seasoning). Luther Adler created the role on Broadway; William Holden in the film.
In “Force of Evil,” the debut feature of Abraham Polonsky, who was Oscar nominated for his “Body and Soul” script, Garfield’s Joe Morse is a corporate lawyer for the numbers racket whose estranged brother (played by Thomas Gomez) runs a small policy operation on the Lower East Side.
Garfield usually made movies about guys trying to make it to the top. In “Force of Evil,” he’s on top at the beginning and quite literally works his to the bottom by the end, in a classic sequence where he clambers down endless flights of steps from Riverside Park to the Hudson River to recover his murdered brother’s battered body.
A hit of its time, “Body and Soul” remains among the most famous boxing movies. The fight scenes, some of which were shot by its great cinematographer James Wong Howe on roller skates, strongly influenced “Raging Bull.”
“Force of Evil,” by contrast, was not at first a success but has since been recognized as one of the finest film noirs.
It is also arguably Garfield’s last good movie. Four years later, at age 39, after being hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee, for whom he refused to name names, Garfield was dead of a heart attack. (Left-leaning, he had never been a member of the Communist Party.)
Shortly before his death, he finally got to play “golden boy” Joe Bonaparte, in a Broadway revival staged by Odets, who shortly afterward named names before HUAC (though he confirmed that Garfield had never been a fellow traveler).
Asked about Garfield years later, Polonsky, who was himself blacklisted as a director for more than 20 years, said: “He defended his street boy’s honor and they killed him for it.”
Polonsky is notorious for having protested the awarding in 1999 of an honorary Oscar to Elia Kazan, who testified in 1952 before HUAC, naming, among others, eight fellow Group Theatre members who had also been Communists.
“I’ll be watching, hoping someone shoots him,” Polonsky said, commenting on the Oscar telecast, adding. “It would no doubt be a thrill in an otherwise dull evening.”
The blacklist era hangs especially heavy over both “Body and Soul” and “Force of Evil.” Robert Rossen -- who like Polonsky and Garfield was raised on the Lower East Side by Russian Jewish parents -- had been a member of the Communist Party and, in his second appearance before the Committee, in 1953, named names and was removed from the (unofficial) blacklist.
Along with “Body and Soul,” Rossen’s best-known films are “All the King’s Men” (1949) and “The Hustler” (1961). All three, in their varying ways, are about the consequences of corruption.
It’s a subject that Rossen, Garfield and Polonsky knew about in their bones.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).
Muse highlights include Broadway box office and Hamptons Scene.