One such piece is the film noir, Force of Evil, which would be considered a mid-level production, but the final product is polished and professional, and the storytelling goes deeper than just another gangster film. The story plays out like a Faustian pact for the lead, Joe Morse, who stands to make his first million by helping rig the city lottery on July 4th: http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue02/infocus/force.htm.
You could argue that is part of the American capitalist spirit, and the filmmaker Polonsky would have agreed. That’s why the film feels so present even though it’s more than 70 years old.
We have two brothers: one is a powerful lawyer working for the crime boss. Joe Morse plays the game of getting everything he can by any means necessary. The other brother, Leo, is not an angel, but his own personal racket of providing funds for the lottery appears more noble in the film. “I’m an honest man here,” he says. “Not a gangster with that gangster Tucker… I do my business honest and respectable.” https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2005/cteq/force_of_evil/
Part of this way of thinking comes down to how capitalism competes with communism. While one approach favors growth at all costs by consuming every available resource (even people), the other is more concerned with modest means and growth. Joe sums up his philosophy early in the film when talking to the woman he wants: “To go to great expense for something you want – that’s natural. To reach out and take it – that’s human, that’s natural. But to get pleasure from not taking, by cheating yourself deliberately, like my brother did today, from not getting, not taking – don’t you see what a black thing that is for a man to do?” https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2005/cteq/force_of_evil/.
Joe wants it all, but Leo just wants enough for himself and his small band of workers. In the film this can be seen how Joe dresses so slick and refined while Leo looks working class.
Yes, this production looks clean and is filmed with a steady hand, with Polonsky clearing evoking different moods and feelings with how and where camera is set up and how scenes are lit.
But note, the spiral staircase, where Joe is and his boss either ascend or descend like it’s a citadel. It’s like a tower or place of worship and the idol is money and power. http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue02/infocus/force.htm. That is a fitting idea, but the image that strikes me first is the one early when we see the bridge. It extends out across the water like the road to reckoning, which Joe appears to take.
Ultimately, it does something unique and becomes “an American movie that dissected capitalism.” https://newrepublic.com/article/105544/david-thomson-force-of-evil
Now, if a film noir from 1948 subtly managed to weave into a story ideas and opinions that were not popular in its day, something like Faces rips off the bandaid of careful concealment and goes all out to assault the audience.
This film from 1968, shows the studio system revealing cracks in the armor. It might be better to say Hollywood was under assault by one of its own who bravely produced a film that plays like an exposed nerve much of the time.
What’s most impactful about the film is how its “anti-Hollywood style…boasts of being too real for the movies.” https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/578-masks-and-faces
It is raw in every way, shot in black and white with harsh lighting and tight closeups revealing the ugliness and awkwardness and beauty (at times) within its characters. Watching a film like this showcases how fake Hollywood films can be. Force of Evil for all its craft and message and conviction of purpose feels artificial compared to Faces, which doesn’t hold back its honesty even in the quiet moments of the film.
The handheld camera effects and jarring position of shots creates almost frantic pace and uneasiness for the viewer as in this video clip at the start of the film. Additionally, the sound seems to come and go, as if the boom mic was being moved randomly or some things were recorded in post-production: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTvXKF6nOgg.
Even with this jarring opening of the film, later the viewer is getting the haunting image of a woman who just tried to commit suicide after a night of passion. She’s taken some pills and is forced to vomit them up and here is the image she portrays.
So, what we have is two films that go about their effects in different ways. One is much more smooth and subtle about it, while the other is outwardly aggressive and doesn’t give the viewer a conventional ending. That is because censorship was at its end in 1968. It’s because the filmmaker, Cassavetes, worked out of his home and edited his own and financed his own projects. He was free to work the way he wanted. Polonsky was trying to navigate a system that was suffocating. But both created something daring and dangerous.
If there is one thing that makes Faces challenging to watch is how it doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure. The viewer is dropped into something unfamiliar and must work out what is going on and process all the unfiltered emotion.
With Force of Evil, there is a structure, one might say a track, the film follows throughout. That helps the viewer follow along. And the emotion is also still very much a safe Hollywood creation. So, the film-noir while dark, is really a very bright film compared to the true darkness in Faces.
Both films effectively broke new ground and found ways to break the mold and creatively make something new. They offer a refreshing alternative to the standard way films were presented back in those days.