Jack London





The Economist magazine tries hard to console its readers with numbers. It worries little about how wealth is distributed and sustains the conviction that any improvement in gross domestic product is beneficial for all.   The magazine was first published in 1843. Ever since then it has preached utilitarianism and the supposed greatest happiness of the greatest number.   Four years before The Economist was first published there were 220 common lodging houses in London. 2500 people used these lodging houses.   The price was four pence for a single bed and eight pence for a double. The double beds were available for married couples. Prostitutes also used the beds for their clients. After their business was done the prostitutes could settle down for the night in something other than the typical narrow single bed of the lodging house.

After the Irish famine in 1848 the number of common lodging houses or doss houses increased. There was also immigration from mainland Europe. Jews escaped pogroms and poverty. By 1854 there were 1441 registered lodging houses in London. Between them all they provided 30,000 beds. Not every lodging house was registered.   3,276 known unregistered lodging houses had space for a further 50,000 people. The conditions in the doss houses were not good. The single beds were as narrow as a decent pair of shoulders, and the bedding was infected by vermin. The kitchens had insufficient space and facilities. Washing the walls with lime helped to control the vermin but the dosshouse owners resented the expense of buying lime.


Back then The Economist would have remained as calm about the hardship as it is today about communities that are obliterated by global businesses. The tragedy would have been excused by a superficial look at numbers. There were over three million people living in London by 1860. The Economist is still capable of relating 80,000 lost souls within a population of three million and concluding it qualifies as the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Apart from his books, Jack London wrote for American newspapers.   He had too much heart for The Economist. In his book The People Of The Abyss he wrote about being poor in London. According to London, 300,000 lived in a single room but not necessarily alone and 900,000 slept in homes but in parts of houses that were not even rooms.  These numbers reveal that over a third of the population lived in squalid accommodation.   Single rooms and cramped cubbyholes did not, though, account for all the slum dwellers in Victorian London.   Extensive squalor has secrets beyond statistics.


300,000 beds in a doss house does not equate to the total number of people who slept in them. Some of the beds were used by more than one customer. A bed could be let in three eight-hour shifts. Many of those living in London would have at some point in their lives had to endure the indignity of having to settle for a bed in a dosshouse. In between building work around the country Irish navvies would return to the doss houses. If some people were obliged to drift down the accommodation scale to the doss house, the destitute could sometimes drift upwards from the street. Some days were better than others.   Money could be scrounged or something found that was worth a few pence. For a beggar it was easier to obtain a penny than the four pence needed for a single bed.   A penny would secure a place in the rope room that most doss houses had. Men would stand next to one another, hang their arms over a line of rope, rest their chins on their chest and doze. For some sleeping this way when drunk was an improvement on trying to sleep cramped in a single bed when sober. The expression ‘can sleep on a clothes line’ was rooted in experience and not a product of a surreal imagination.


Jack London spent several weeks in lodging houses because he was researching The People Of The Abyss.   London was not a typical user of a dosshouse. Neither was he a permanent resident of the City.   This did not make him unusual.  The lodging houses existed because people were poor and had unsettled lives. Haymaking and fruit picking were popular ways to earn money in the summer, and many Londoners deserted the City in those months. Others joined fairs and travelling shows. Navvies found more building work than normal, and some men would ‘go on the tramp’, sampling the countryside while they scrounged the odd job and handout.   This seasonal movement of people coexisted alongside an urban restlessness rooted in the inevitable indebtedness and crime that the poor needed to survive. In 1890 the Islington murderer Thomas Neal killed his 24 years old wife at St Peter’s Street, which was the sixth address that Neal had occupied in the previous nine and a half months.

Women used the doss houses. Not all were prostitutes, and of them only some would have had customers.   The Government must have ignored the calm reassurances of The Economist because it increased the powers of local government to regulate the doss houses. The presence of men and women together and the sharing of accommodation by the genders became unusual.   The Common Lodging House Acts of 1851 and 1853 were meant to improve sanitation. The local authorities used their powers to regulate immorality but were less diligent in imposing sanitary standards. Immorality did exist. Drinking in the doss houses, though, was not widespread.   People arrived drunk but after paying for their bed their purses and pockets were empty. The drunks were ready to flop. Thieving was a problem when there was something to steal. No doubt there would have been people all too willing to take advantage of others but the recorded memories of residents also refer to when shared company felt like modest social and emotional support. Most of the time, though, the experience inside a doss house was grim. Examples of starvation were observable in the East End, and some of those would have appeared in the doss houses. One account that was typical refers to 27 years old Ellen Munro who was found dead in a doorway. ‘Her bones appeared to protrude though her skin,’ said a witness.


The Rowton Houses were not much help to the starving but they did halt the slide in some. The first Rowton House was established in Vauxhall, London by Lord Rowton. Without his title he was just plain Montagu Corry. Rowton House charged six pence a night for a single bed, two pence more than the standard fare but it offered comfortable beds located in cubicles that provided a degree of privacy. The Rowton Houses were kept clean, and there was a serious attempt to prevent vermin. The washrooms had hot and cold water and footbaths. There were even coat hooks. The libraries were intended to help the men relax and be occupied. In a way they did because all the books in the first Rowton House were stolen in a couple of days. After that the books were kept behind locked cases. Rowton House was successful, and five others were opened in London. Rowton Houses were also built in Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle.


Black and Asian immigrants would have also used doss houses in between work. On the street black beggars were rumoured to be more successful than the white. The black beggar may have been poor but he had exotic dignity while his white counterpart appeared more pathetic and distasteful.   For reasons we can imagine most Black, Asian and Chinese did not settle in the Victorian communities. At the end of the 19th Century there were fewer black people in London than there had been fifty years before.

Modest conversation and mutual sympathy may have been available between residents but survival depended on people being wary and keeping their distance. As a hiding place, the doss house would have suited a serial killer. He could move quickly to a bed where those next to him would have wanted to feel they had some space rather than experience intimacy. After night had arrived the washrooms and kitchens were dark and gloomy. No one would be sure who or what they saw there, and seeing a man stripped and washing himself clean would have looked normal, even if what he happened to be washing away was blood. It would be another low paid worker making himself clean after a long hard shift. Questions and curiosity were not appropriate in a doss house. Neither was sharing information with the police.  Anyone suspected of being a police informant was beaten up and ejected from the dosshouse.   Unless it was a Rowton House, the first of which opened two years after the murders, there was no space for clothes and no coat hooks. No one disrobed for bed. Jack the Ripper had to hide somewhere after his crimes. The dark shadows of the doss house, where the sheepish and anxious poor were desperate for sleep, may have provided in 1888 a refuge for someone who knew how to hide in the most overpopulated district of not just London but the world.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.






USA, 1946

Force of Evil

Joe Morse talks a lot, and his words are fancy.  There is a reason. The movie Force Of Evil was based on the novel Tucker’s People. Ira Wolfert wrote the first draft of the screenplay for Force Of Evil and the original novel. His book Married Men is a whopping 800 pages filled with small print. The thriller Tucker’s People is not quite as ambitious but it needs a hefty 400 pages. Republic Pictures Corporation provided the finance and distribution for Force Of Evil. The unkind called Republic a ‘poverty row’ company. Their budgets were tight, and most of their films finished as the second feature in cinemas. Force Of Evil lasts for 78 minutes because Republic was not prepared to pay for any more celluloid and minutes. This meant that Polonsky and Wolfort had a problem. Tucker’s People is important because of its ambition and message. The gangsters are a metaphor for the limitations of modern capitalism and high finance.   Joe talks a lot because there is much to explain, how the numbers racket works, how a monetised social system corrupts the soul, how the 1% do what they can to rig the market and how the blurred distinction between capitalists and the not so rich businessmen and merchants causes confusion in those who are loyal to the system.  But Joe is obliged also to be personal. Realising his ambition has been manipulated by the powerful, Joe talks of disillusionment and the change in his feelings. He is loyal to his brother Leo, and there are conversations between the two of them. And, when he is not doing that, Joe has to persuade Doris to fall in love with him.


Force Of Evil is packed tight with exposition and conversation.   When the film first appeared in the States, the critics were sniffy.  None of them noticed that much of the dialogue was in blank verse. The film had to arrive in Europe for critics to be alerted but even then nobody attempted to explain why.  This is my theory.  Polonsky and Wolfert had to do something with all that talk. Most B movies have simple plots and basic themes. Rather than simplify the script, Polonsky and Wolfert wallowed in the exposition and used the trick made famous by Shakespeare.  Blank verse not only added poetry to Force Of Evil, it squeezed two sharp writers out of a tight corner. If talky Joe had done nothing but explain the plot, we might not have been seduced by the glorious language but Joe is a smart guy.   He has a corrupt society, the temptations of capitalism and his emotional frustration to discuss. ‘I didn’t have enough strength to resist corruption but I was strong enough to fight for a piece of it.’   Most of the time, when the fighting starts and supposed victory is experienced, the memory of the earlier and more important failure is obliterated. But Joe has more than a memory.  He has brother Leo to protect, and Tucker, the man who will help Joe become rich after they rig the lottery result, wants to bankrupt the small time operators including brother Leo. Joe realises that he is not the wise guy he thought. ‘I feel like midnight and I don’t know what the morning will be.’ Even without the metre of the verse that sounds impressive.


Force Of Evil may not capture all the misgivings that we have about the way we live in the modern world but it feels as if it does. Joe sums up the desire of the capitalists for profit and their contempt for ordinary people. ‘Money is something that goes to waste in other people’s pockets.’ Ira Wolfert described the capitalists as ‘the bosses that I hate’. Force Of Evil is sympathetic to those who work in the market. It is the 1% who call the shots that are the villains. Robber barons, and not perfect competition or the free market, define capitalism. Joe is a lawyer for one of them, Tucker, but Leo his brother worked hard to give Joe opportunities.  Joe responded to the jungle around him and fought and used his brains but he had privileges denied others. Privilege has a habit of attracting compound interest. After the sacrifices his brother made, Joe met Tucker. ‘He opened his wallet, and I jumped in headfirst. I sat there and measured my strength.’ The relentless competition affects everyone. Even the big boss Tucker feels insecure.  ‘Of course, I trust you, Joe. I just want you to know how worried I am.’


Most film noirs hide the cheap sets in shadow and low light. In Force Of Evil there are two suspense scenes shot in shadow but the rest is in bright black and white. The décor is plain but classical, and, because the characters operate in their own psychological worlds, they have physical space around them. In the waiting area outside the courtroom, characters move away from one another and reappear.   It is theatrical but dramatic and marvellous. The two memorable shots involve a staircase. Competition and rivalry reign, and the characters are not only in ascent or descent they have no idea what is up or down. Staircases confuse them. When the movie does go outside, there are impressive views of empty New York streets and a never to be forgotten final scene when Joe wanders down to the bay to find his dead brother. The daylight changes into sunshine, and people disappear. We realise that Joe is leaving the trappings of a crooked and twisted world. The music also has some fine moments. Its heavy chords we associate with religious ceremony, and they are a reminder that the spiritual battles that Joe is fighting have existed for some time. Ira Wolfert thought it was because the bosses have always run the show. The less political look for religious themes and note the biblical references in the script. Others resign themselves to believing it is how human beings are constructed.


Although the main concern of Force Of Evil is the need for defiance and its importance to the human spirit there is also detached protest about a flawed economic and social system. There is even optimism.   Joe Morse walks away from his brother and understands why a system based on greed has to be rejected. Leo lies dead at the side of the river, washed up like garbage because he was no longer useful to the bosses. The pun is both visual and literary.   Joe takes a final look at his dead brother before leading Doris away and towards the struggle that waits. ‘Something was wrong, and I decided to help.’ Compared to the previous eloquence these are simple words. There is a reason. Doing the right thing does not require complicated argument.  The obvious comparison is with the great radical novel, The Iron Heel by Jack London. In that novel there is also a rugged masculine American hero determined to challenge the oppression of the bosses.

Force of Evil 4



Force Of Evil, though, is much more than dull agitprop polemic. The script is sharp, witty, cynical, romantic and playful. Force Of Evil is the kind of knowing movie that Billy Wilder would have made if he were a socialist. Many years ago I read a review that was approving about the film but superior about the performance of Thomas Gomez as brother Leo. He has a different style from the naturalism of John Garfield who dominates the film as the complicated and tortured Joe but Gomez is believable as the powerless and desperate head of a small time operation. He sweats because he is overweight, scared and exasperated. Sultry Marie Windsor has three brief scenes. Windsor plays the bored wife of Tucker, and that is all we know about her but she adds sex to the other compromises that have corroded the soul of Joe Morse. Beatrice Person only made two movies, and the reason why remains a mystery because she is perfect as Doris the decent woman who will somehow love her man too much yet stand firm against his weakness and self-indulgence.


Above them all, though, is John Garfield. Not only does his voice caress the blank verse and hint at how his thoughts surprise even him, he adds complexity and meaning to what is already a rich brew.   When he says to Doris, ‘You wanted the ruby after all’, he adds baritone strength, and Joe becomes seducer, fighter and thinker.  In Body And Soul John Garfield was a boxer, and his performance was physical.  He keeps his body tight in Force Of Evil.  Joe Morse is a man shaped by a calculating mind. The drama happens between his shoulders, and the clues are the words that come out of his mouth.

The relationship between the two brothers is fundamental to what happens in the film but Joe has other reasons to resist the plans of Tucker.  He realises he will be betrayed because the success and money he has is wanted by others. Joe may have ambition and cynicism but he is unlike the gangsters. Joe wants the approval of Leo that is denied him but he is also indebted. The absence of any sense of debt and obligation is what makes the gangsters sinister. It is what happens to the rich and powerful and reduces them. The clash between materialism and having personal worth is teased out of the relationship between Joe and Doris. Joe does not understand people who do not want to take what is there, help themselves to the money that is around them. He regards this as failure. Doris wants more. She is aware that the obsession with money destroys life. She tells Joe that it is ‘being rich in death’. This is the argument against capitalism and it is more than political, it is personal.  In a rather pompous introduction to the movie Martin Scorcese describes Force Of Evil as both existential and political. He misses the point. As Sartre understood, the political is existential. It is why some of us persist in hoping for change and progress whatever our natures.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.