Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Legendary producer Mark Hellinger launched this subversive prison revolt epic to follow The Killers, the smash hit which had introduced his discovery Burt Lancaster. The movie also marks the crime film debut of the 'socially committed' director Jules Dassin, who would make two more noir classics (The Naked City, Night and the City) before fleeing to Europe to avoid the persecution of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Brute Force carries a radical, violent message: Society is a rigged system and rebellion is the only meaningful act.
A superb production and a powerhouse cast made Brute Force into a fierce action drama that put the Production Code on the defensive. Its only weakness is Richard Brooks' sometimes overwritten dialogue, which voices a social outrage that would not be tolerated outside of a genre film.
Westgate Prison is a hotbox of violence ready to explode. The ineffectual policies of Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) have left the prisoners under the authority of the sadistic, Nazi-like Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Munsey derives personal pleasure from torturing prisoners both physically and psychologically, as seen when he drives inmate Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) to despair with lies that his wife on the outside has filed for divorce. Realizing that any further disruption will lead to his promotion to Warden, Munsey secretly agitates to encourage prisoners to revolt or attempt a breakout. Hard-bitten inmate Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) leads his cellblock in doing just that, allying with prison 'boss' Gallagher (Charles Bickford) to coordinate a two-pronged attack on the machine-gun tower guarding the gated bridge to freedom. Little does Munsey know that the rage he's encouraged will consume him as well.
Brute Force is less about prison life than it is "Spartacus in the Big House". Even with the distance of allegory, few liberal movies are as politically explicit. In a Hollywood with a Production Code that disallowed negative depictions of law enforcement officers, Brute Force presents a prison warder as an out-and-out Nazi. Hume Cronyn's power-mad Captain Munsey talks about the right of the strong to destroy the weak, and tortures a Jewish prisoner while playing Wagner on his phonograph.
That said, Richard Brooks' taut script spreads the blame to its "liberal" characters as well. Munsey is presented as a lone sociopath alienated from the rest of the prison guards, some of whom are revolted by his behavior. Munsey's reign of terror is only possible because the warden is an indecisive weakling incapable of fighting for inmate rights. Brooks' supposed moral spokesman is the prison doctor. He spouts tough liberal talk about abuses and human rights but is an alcoholic and a defeatist. He does less than nothing to change conditions.
Brute Force's biased view sees most men in prison as sympathetic martyrs. Charles Bickford's unofficial inmate mayor is a man of discretion and integrity. A romantic flashback emphasizes that noble prisoner Burt Lancaster loves a crippled girl (Ann Blyth). The fact that he's a member of a gang of robbers is accepted without comment. Several of Burt's immediate bunkmates seem to be in prison for romantic reasons: Whit Bissell embezzled money to buy his wife (Ella Raines) a fur and Howard Duff took the rap when his Italian girlfriend (Yvonne De Carlo) shot her father. Gentleman crook John Hoyt relates an amusing tale of being fleeced at gunpoint by a swanky but treacherous date. Rather too conveniently, the inmate population is depicted as victims of an oppressive system. Of course, the romantic flashbacks are also there to help Brute Force appeal to female moviegoers, and provide pretty girls for the poster art.
The first act ends with an appalling scene in which the inmates take revenge on an informer. Luckless Wilson (James O'Rear) ratted on Lancaster's Collins; his punishment is to be crushed under a massive machine steam press. With ritual solemnity, our 'heroes' use blowtorches to force Wilson into the press. Adding to the sadism, we're expected to view the disturbing killing as justified, a communal retribution.
Brute Force moves inexorably toward an apocalyptic finale. Collins' work gang just outside the prison gates unites with the Gallagher-led general prison population in a full-scale revolt, with machine guns and Molotov cocktails. The inmates riot as much for vengeance against Munsey as to actually escape. Too enraged to back down, Collins goes through with the breakout even after learning that Munsey has laid a trap. The guards are overcome, but the bloody rebellion is short-lived.
Director Jules Dassin shows skill in his character scenes as well as a flair for staging the bloody havoc of the finale. Making heavy use of optical expert David S. Horsley's mattes and miniatures, Dassin turns the watchtower confrontation between Collins and Munsey into a violent precursor to the end of The Wild Bunch. Collins reacts to being shot in the back almost identically to William Holden from Sam Peckinpah's film.
The only dead weight in Brute Force are the position speeches Richard Brooks places in the mouth of Art Smith's doctor. The prison sawbones unerringly spouts poetic humanist arguments, placing the film's radical message out in the open. The only worse offender in film noir is the Italian scientist in Try and Get Me! who constantly plagues the other characters with lofty moral messages. At least Jules Dassin and Art Smith make the scenes properly forceful.
Each role and bit part in Brute Force is filled with a dynamic persona, starting with holdovers from The Killers: Sam Levene, Jeff Corey and Charles McGraw). Scores of familiar faces are cast to type: Jack Overman, Sir Lancelot, Vince Barnett, Jay C. Flippen, Richard Gaines, Frank Puglia, James Bell, Howland Chamberlain, Gene Roth, Glenn Strange, Ray Teal. Hellinger would reward young Howard Duff with a showcase role in his next and final film The Naked City. Burt Lancaster's hot date in The Killers had been Ava Gardner, an MGM starlet loan-out who returned to her studio a star. To replace her Hellinger promoted Universal's intoxicating beauty Yvonne De Carlo. She later paired with Lancaster in Robert Siodmak's masterpiece Criss Cross.
Criterion's DVD of Brute Force finishes its series of vintage Jules Dassin titles with an excellent video rendering of this rare crime classic. The B&W transfer beats any previous release. The audio is much clearer, the better to appreciate Miklos Rosza's nervous, emphatic score.
Disc producer Issa Clubb fills an insert booklet with an excellent essay on the film by Michael Atkinson and an amusing appreciation of Mark Hellinger taken from a 1947 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. A contemporary of Damon Runyon, the colorful Hellinger might have been the inspiration for Runyon's Sky Masterson or Dave the Dude. The booklet also reprints several memos and letters in Hellinger's adroit censorship battle with Joseph Breen. Prison ethics and issues expert Paul Mason is on camera for an interview documentary about prison films, promoting the idea that prisons are an archaic institution that needs to be abolished.
The best extra is Alain Silver and James Ursini's authoritative commentary. The noir authors tackle Brute Force with uncommon clarity, analyzing its sometimes contradictory politics and placing the film in the context of the HUAC years with economy and precision. Their observations make a compelling case that Hellinger and Dassin's film is one of the central works of the noir style.
A trailer in poor condition is provided, along with an excellent selection of publicity graphics and stills.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Brute Force rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini; interview with Paul Mason, prison issues scholar, essay by Michael Atkinson, 1947 magazine profile of Mark Hellinger, Hellinger and Joseph Breen correspondence.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 29, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson