Jules Dassin’s Brute Force is a brutally, cruel, claustrophobic prison film that will turn your knuckles bloody to the skin. This was the director’s first venture into the world of film noir. It has a tough hard core texture, thanks to not only Dassin’s sharp direction, but the cinematography of William H. Daniels (The Naked City, Lured) and the music score of Miklós Rózsa (Ministry of Fear, Woman in Hiding).
The film stars Burt Lancaster in what was only his second film to be released. In between his first film, The Killers, Lancaster made two films for Paramount, Desert Fury and Variety Girl, before returning to Universal for the prison drama. Released in June of 1947, along with Lancaster, Brute Force has an excellent cast that includes Hume Cronyn as Captain Munsey, the sadistic and tyrannical top guard along with Jeff Corey, Charles Bickford, Sam Levene, Whit Bissell, Howard Duff, Charles McGraw, Glen Strange and John Hoyt as fellow prisoners. As Captain Munsey, Cronyn, playing completely against type, gives a psychotic performance that will shock viewers who are use to seeing the actor portraying more genteel characters.
Brute Force sends a potent message. It’s a strong indictment of the prison system for both its corruptness and failure to rehabilitate, yet the filmmakers never let its lessons get in the way of the powerful story. Producer Mark Hellinger (The Killers, Criss Cross, Swell Guy, Naked City) hired screenwriter Richard Brooks to adapt a story by Robert Patterson. Brooks worked with Hellinger twice before (The Killers, Swell Guy) and would go on to direct some of his own hard hitting films like The Blackboard Jungle and In Cold Blood.
The story takes place in Westgate prison, poorly managed by Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) leaving the sadistic, totalitarian Captain Munsey to run the place as he sees fit. Munsey desires to someday soon take over from the ineffective Barnes. Munsey derives a merciless gratification by torturing the prisoners, both physically and psychologically. In one scene, Munsey, using a rubber hose, beats close to death Louie Miller (Sam Levene), a Jewish prisoner while playing a Wagner record. The scene plays out like a subtle, or not so subtle, visual analogy to life in a Nazi concentration camp. In an earlier scene, mild mannered Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) is bullied by Munsey to the point where the gentile prisoner commits suicide.
However, the convicts are not much better. One prisoner, Wilson (James O’Rear), a stoolie for Munsey finds himself at the wrong end of prison justice when it’s discovered he ratted out on Collins sending him to solitary. Soon after, while on duty in the prison work shop, his fellow prisoners get their revenge. Distracting the guards, some of the men, holding blow tortures, circle around Wilson forcing him to walk backward toward an enormous press machine. He falls in and is mercilessly crushed to death. You feel sorry for these men, the hard conditions they live in, but in scenes like this you don’t forget many of them are cold blooded killers.
Munsey continuously antagonizes the prison population hoping they will riot, thereby forcing the state to relieve the ineffective Barnes of his duties as Warden and elevate him to the top job. Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) wants out of prison. He plans a breakout with the help of Gallagher (Charles Bickford), the cellblock’s “boss man.” The film’s finale is the big revolt which is doomed to failure after one of Collins men becomes a stoolie, informing Munsey of the planned escape. The whole plan plays into Munsey’s hands. Collins learns that Munsey knows about the escape plan. Instead of calling it off, he’s so disparate to get out, he still wants to go through with it. When the break is put into action, Collins and his fellow escapees strap the stoolie, a creepy Jeff Corey, to the front of a handcar making sure he is the first one killed by the waiting guards. Collins is wounded badly in the back, he screams out like a mad wounded animal. However, before he dies, he struggles to make his way up the observation tower where Munsey, with a machine gun in hand, is mowing down prisoner after prisoner. They battle, and then in an animalistic rage, Collins lifts the pint size Munsey high up above his shoulders into the air and tosses him off the tower, down into the mob of prisoners waiting to devour him below.
The violence in Brute Force was rough and nasty for its time. One prisoner, Wilson (James O’Rear), a stoolie for Munsey finds himself at the wrong end of prison justice when it’s discovered he ratted out on Collins sending him to solitary. Soon after, while on duty in the prison work shop, his fellow prisoners get their revenge. Distracting the guards, some of the men, holding blow tortures, circle around Wilson forcing him to walk backward toward an enormous press machine. He falls in, mercilessly crushed to death. You feel sorry for these men, the hard conditions they live in, the hopelessness. With no chance for rehabilitation, they descend further in violent hopelessness.
The flashback scenes have been generally considered the film’s main weakness, but I am not so sure. This is basically a male dominated film, however, Hollywood back in the day always needed to inject a romantic angle. Universal demanded Dassin incorporate the flashback scenes which included four ladies: Yvonne DeCarlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines and Anita Colby. It has been written that the women are to blame for the men’s imprisonment, but as Ann Blyth biographer, Jacqueline T. Lynch, points out that this is not necessarily the case. Lancaster’s Collin’s want the money to help his wheelchair bound girl (Ann Blyth) get a lifesaving operation. Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) embezzles money from his company because his wife wants a fur coat, but she is completely unaware of his cooking the books. Howard Duff’s soldier takes the rap for his Italian girlfriend murdering her father, but he already has a record and is arrested for other crimes. The flashbacks do soften the consistent intense brutality of the film, providing brief reprieves. More importantly, they add a sense of depth to the convicts characters, making their lives more rounded, showing they are not just animals locked in cages.
The film did meet with some problems from the censors and some scenes had to be trimmed. Still, it remains an amazingly brutal film for its time, and arguably the best prison film ever made. It was also a big hit with the public who made it one of the top films of the years. The film solidified Burt Lancaster as a star. For Howard Duff and Whit Bissell it was their first film in long careers.
Most of Jules Dassin’s best films were always about the lower class fighting to survive in a world run by the power elite. He would go on to make at least two more certified film noir classic, Night and the City and The Naked City, as well two other excellent noirs, Thieves Highway and the French made Rififi.
Ann Blyth: Actress Singer Star – Jacqueline T. Lynch
Burt Lancaster – Robert Windeler
An American Life – Kate Buford
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