April 9, 2007
Jules Dassin brought his style of hard-hitting, unflinching realism to the prison melodrama genre as he depicts the harsh world behind bars in Brute Force (1947). The first shot of the prison is a low angle one looking up at a watch tower at night in a fierce rainstorm which creates an impressive, imposing image and establishes this as a key location that will play a pivotal role at the film’s climax. This is followed by a series of shots of various prison structures before we go inside and see the nightly roll call that accounts for every prisoner.
Right from the start Dassin sets up the film’s two opposing forces: Joe Collins (Lancaster), the tough prisoner with integrity and Captain Munsey (Cronyn), the cruel head guard who enforces the rules with an iron fist. Dassin even shows the inner workings of the administrative side of the prison – how the warden and the prison doctor are pressured by the powers that be to keep the prisoners under control. The doctor argues for patience and understanding while the owner demands “absolute force” to keep everyone in line which Munsey supports unconditionally. Dassin also shows life in the prison with inmates at work making license plates and how, in that noisy environment, a diversion is created so that a man who ratted on a fellow prisoner is killed for his transgressions and it is made to look like an accident.
The film is filled with fantastic dialogue that snaps and crackles with intensity and wit. Collins talks with Gallager (Bickford), the editor of the prison newspaper, about his plan to escape and Gallager replies, “You only make thing tougher for everybody else.” Collins says, “I don’t care about everybody else,” to which Gallager replies, “That’s cemetery talk.” Collins answers, “We’re buried ain’t we? Only thing is we ain’t dead.” It is typical, hard-boiled talk indicative of film noir movies at the time and works so well in this prison setting filled with killers and con men. Collins asks Gallagher to help him break out of the prison but he has heard this kind of talk many times before.
Brute Force imparts a sense of humanity on the prisoners, like in the scene where an inmate explains to another why they idealize a picture of a woman in their cell. To them, she represents the women they loved on the outside. These men aren’t animals. They have their own dreams and desires. Dassin also provides insight into why some of these men were incarcerated via flashbacks and quite often at the expense of a woman, whether it was a grifter double-crossed by a female con artist or a man stealing a fur coat for the women he loves.
Burt Lancaster is a force of nature complete with a handsome profile chiseled out of marble. He brings a certain amount of machismo to the role with a dash of nobility. Collins is determined to beat the system and escape the prison no matter the cost. He’s an instinctive man possessed with steely determination. This is contrasted with Munsey, an insidious monster who keeps the inmates under control through physical intimidation and cruel mind games. The latter is disturbingly effective, like when he torments an inmate so badly that the man commits suicide. Hume Cronyn is excellent as the power hungry prison guard who uses fear to keep the inmates in line. The actor does not shout or resort to over-the-top acting but is instead calm and intense, like the way he casually takes a night stick out before interrogating a prisoner and then covers the beating he gives the man with classical music. Munsey is a man drunk on power. He enjoys his job and the ruthless methods that he employs.
At times, Brute Force is almost documentary-like in nature but once Collins’ plan to escape begins, the film explodes in an exciting climax that finally sees the film’s two opposing forces square off against each other. Dassin’s film is one of the best examples of the prison genre and a top notch noir as well, deserved of Criterion’s typical top notch treatment.
There is an audio commentary by film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini. They argue the film’s importance as a film noir explaining that it was made by the same producer of two other noir classics, The Killers (1946) and The Naked City (1948), and point out that it was made at the height of the genre. Silver and Ursini also point out that Brute Force is one of the grimmest, fatalistic noirs with an oppressive rain beating down on the prison and the repeated shots of clocks symbolizing time running out. They praise Lancaster’s “physical expressiveness” which came from his love of silent cinema and compare him to another noir favourite, Robert Mitchum who also often played defeated protagonists. Silver and Ursini do an excellent job covering various aspects of the film in an engaging and informative way.
There is an interview with criminologist and author Paul Mason who talks about the constraints of the prison genre. He says that Brute Force “shows the horrors of prison in an honest way” and that it depicts the inmates as humans not animals. He points out that the lack of humanity comes from Munsey. Mason does a good job talking about the prison film genre, its history and Brute Force’s place in it.
Also included is a theatrical trailer.
Finally, there is a stills gallery with poster art, behind-the-scenes photographs and production stills.