Beautiful Crimes

The Crime Movie has a long and illustrious family tree, reaching all the way back to D.W. Griffith and “The Musketeers of Pig Alley.” They can be garish or reflective, blunt or reflective. Only rarely are they beautiful. Abraham Polonsky’s “Force of Evil” and Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” are two of the most beautiful–beautifully written, directed, acted, photographed and scored. They are also first-rate additions in the genre.
Both are about forms of corruption, both are about brothers. In both films, one brother is corrupt in a major way, while the other is corrupt in a minor way, but both sets of brothers are in the thrall of a powerful rackets boss. Polonsky’s film takes aim at Capitalism–Ben Tucker is an ex-bootlegger who wants into the profitable numbers racket. At present the racket is disorganized–lots of money flowing through many hands. But Tucker has a smart lawyer, Joe Morse, who can both consolidate the business and hopefully make it legal. The only problem: most of the small numbers banks will be wiped out, including the one belonging to Joe’s older brother Leo. Kazan’s film is about Labor, specifically labor racketeering on the New Jersey waterfront. Johnny Friendly has a right-hand man, Charley Malloy, and Charlie has a younger bother, an ex-boxer, Terry, who works on the piers and does odd jobs for the mob.
Both films reach a crisis point when the brothers fall out.
The betrayals are complex. Joe tries to “reward” his older brother for putting him through law school by making his little bank the main bank in the emerging Tucker combine. But Leo doesn’t want the “success” that Joe offers him–and neither does Leo’s head bookkeeper Freddie Bauer, who betrays the entire operation in a futile attempt to get out from under Tucker.
Johnny and Charlie give Terry a simple assignment–coax a potential witness to waterfront corruption to go up to the tenement roof. Terry doesn’t realize that the man is to be killed, and he begins to suffer guilt pangs–especially once he enters into an “unhealthy relationship” with the dead man’s sister. In a justly revered scene, the two brothers face off and Terry finally accuses Charlie of wrecking his boxing career and turning him into a bum. Charlie is sufficiently moved by Terry’s denunciation that he sacrifices himself to the wrath of his boss.
The “money scene” in “Force of Evil” actually involves Leo and Bauer who Leo realizes has set him up for a hit from a Tucker competitor, but as in “On the Waterfront,” the death of the older brother is what finally galvanizes the younger brother into action. Terry will testify against Friendly and his mob. Joe will trick Tucker and his lieutenant into confessing their guilt in Leo’s death and their plan to control the numbers racket over a tapped phone-line. In Kazan’s film Terry survives a brutal fist-fight first with Friendly, then with his goons. In Polonsky’s film Morse ignites a three-way gun battle in which Tucker and his new partner Fico kill each other, while Joe emerges to turn himself in to the D.A. He too will testify to the corruption he had been a part of.
Both films gain their power and beauty from this Cain-and-Abel plotting–a younger brother will cause the death of his older brother, then sacrifice himself in an act of atonement. Charlie Malloy is the bad older brother who made money off of the betrayal of his younger brother, by convincing him to throw his big fight. Leo Morse is the good older brother who sacrificed his own chance at law school to give Joe the chance. Joe’s attempt to repay Leo leads to Leo’s death, and Terry’s decision to stop betraying himself leads to Charlie’s demise. And both deaths of the elder brothers lead to the rebirth of the younger brothers. Pure poetry.

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