I watched this again for about the third time. I felt as if I were floating the whole time on a bobbing ocean, and this is because of the poetry of the script. Then, every so often there would come a dose of tough reality, as in the guilt of "Joe Morse" (John Garfield) and his doomed attempts at gaining money and redemption simultaneously. His brother Leo, by contrast, cares for his employees as he would for a family, manages to maintain a clear conscience or thinks he does despite the business he's in, and won't sacrifice them for the bigger money of the gangster-ridden combine.
Although said to be an indictment of capitalism, this picture is not. The combine fixes a number so as to drive the small operators into bankruptcy. This is not how a legitimate business operates. Then the combine led by "Ben Tucker" (Roy Roberts) intimidates the work force into staying on under the combine's thumb. Forced employment is not how a legitimate business operates either. If capitalism is taken to mean a free market in which businesses operate without force or fraud, gaining customers because they provide a service in demand at a price, then the combine is not a free market and this film doesn't indict capitalism. A clearer critical movie story would show a business operating to create privileges for itself by lobbying government, getting the force of law on its side, and giving itself a profitable advantage over current and potential competition. Lord knows there is tons of this going on. I do not now whether or not Abraham Polonsky meant to criticize capitalism by using the combine as an example or not. I can only say that the movie doesn't do it. Therefore it does not squarely address a social justice issue that has to do with "justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society," as one web definition puts it.
What the movie does address is the moral decision of Joe to use his profession to get numbers legalized, and this is only all right as long as entry into the lottery game is open to others than the combine. However, that's not what Roberts intends, and so Joe is entering a mixed moral situation in which the evil will predominate. Roberts wants crony capitalism enforced by intimidation and underhanded means, and presumably bribes paid to lawmakers and restrictions that prevent competition from arising. Joe know he's doing wrong but plunges ahead anyway, the lure of money being his weakness. His love interest "Doris" (Beatrice Pearson) knows too and hopes to divert him. She, by the way, is a powerful player, every bit the match of the other powerhouses in this film, including Thomas Gomez. She is delightful, intelligent and strong.
The movie's great merits are performances, staging, imagery, and feverish, intense poeticism combined with realism. Garfield's fiery delivery inspires all the other players, or maybe it was Gomez's that did so, such that they all pull us into the heated maelstrom. The link of French poetic realism to noir is most evident in films like this in which as viewers we seem to be swept into feelings that provide another level altogether to a story. This is the invisible level of moral choices and the consequences they entail. It is a level where we have to choose and no matter what we choose, we are mixing evil and good and we must live with the results.