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At the darker end of film noir are a number of movies with conclusions so pessimistic that viewers are often taken by surprise -- the grim feelings of despair and hopelessness linger after the lights go up. To name three, Jules Dassin's Night and the City, Cy Endfield's Try and Get Me! and Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly leave the viewer in various degrees of desolation.
Jules Dassin's earlier Brute Force (1947) is another unrelenting drama that doesn't believe in justice or redemption for its characters, who seem to exist in a horrible purgatory. The 'system' criticized in this protest film is a state prison, but the script by Richard Brooks takes the attitude that it's really a microcosm of existence itself: Life is Hell, and "nobody really escapes". More realistic prison pictures have been made, and some are more graphic, but when it comes to having a bad attitude, Brute Force takes the cake.
Legendary producer Mark Hellinger launched this brutal prison revolt epic to follow The Killers, the smash hit that introduced his acting discovery Burt Lancaster. The movie also marks the crime film debut of the 'socially committed' director Jules Dassin, who would make more noir classics (The Naked City, Thieves' Highway, Night and the City) before fleeing to Europe to avoid the persecution of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Is Brute Force anti-American? Its undisguised message is both radical and negative: society is a rigged system and rebellion is the only meaningful act. The film's explosive finale provided the most violent thrills yet seen in an American action picture.
The Production Code was put on the defensive by Brute Force's depiction of martyred prisoners and corrupt authority figures. The film's only weakness is Richard Brooks' sometimes overwritten dialogue, which in this case voices a generalized, fatalistic social outrage. Film fans are always impressed by the intensity of the action even if it is not the sort of show one takes to heart. The Criterion Collection released a DVD back in 2007, and now UK's Arrow Academy gives us a restored Blu-ray, with interesting extras.
Separated from the mainland by a moat-like water channel, Westgate Prison is a hotbox of injustice, ready to explode. The ineffectual Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) has left the prisoners under the authority of the sadistic, fascist-minded Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Munsey derives 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 disruptions will lead to his promotion to Warden, Munsey secretly agitates to encourage the 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 set free is too powerful to be controlled.
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. The Hollywood Production Code pointedly disallowed negative depictions of law enforcement officers, but Brute Force's prison guards act like thugs and the yard captain couldn't be more of a Nazi if he wore a swastika. Actor Hume Cronyn, often cast as odd or ineffectual characters, is frightening as the power-mad Captain Munsey. He talks about the right of the strong to destroy the weak, and tortures a Jewish prisoner while playing Wagner on his phonograph. Whether taunting prisoner Joe Collins or polishing his guns in his t-shirt, Munsey's fascism is directly related to sexual frustration. For 1947, this is daring film content.
Richard Brooks' taut script doesn't lay all the blame on this extreme villain. Munsey's reign of terror is only possible because Warden Barnes is an indecisive weakling. A state official (Richard Gaines) is interested only in making sure it causes no problems for the governor. Some of the prison guards are revolted by the situation, yet they follow Munsey's commands as if the prison were a concentration camp. Brooks' supposed moral spokesman is Dr. Walters, who spouts poetic pieties about prison abuses and human rights but is also an alcoholic and a defeatist. Walters illustrates the uselessness of good intentions without action. Walters at least knows how to describe Munsey's threats: "That's it. Not cleverness. Not imagination. Just Force. Brute Force."
The film's biased view sees most of the prisoners as sympathetic martyrs. Charles Bickford's unofficial inmate mayor is a man of discretion and integrity, but he's moved to join the revolt as well. To further destabilize the prison, Captain Munsey purposely rats out his own squealers and stooges. The first act ends with an appallingly violent scene of inmate revenge on an informer, the luckless Wilson (James O'Rear). With ritual solemnity, our 'heroes' use blowtorches to force Wilson into the maw of a massive machine press. No 'prison reform' will help this situation. If the warden is fired, Munsey will take over. Just the thought of that is enough to incite the inmates to revolution.
We concentrate on a small group of men in one cell. As a commercial gambit, each is given a girlfriend so that their memory flashbacks can take us outside the prison for romantic subplots. Burt's Joe Collins is a career criminal redeemed by the love of a crippled girl (Ann Blyth). She's the reason he's so desperate to bust out of prison. Burt's immediate bunkmates all seem to be in prison for romantic reasons. Gentleman crook John Hoyt was fleeced at gunpoint by a swanky but treacherous date (Anita Colby). Soldier Howard Duff took the rap when his Italian girlfriend (Yvonne De Carlo) shot her father. Miserable Whit Bissell embezzled money to buy his wife (Ella Raines) a fur coat. The soapy romantic flashbacks are obviously included to make the film palatable for female moviegoers. 1
In its final half Brute Force builds steadily toward an anticipated apocalyptic finale -- only a massacre can release the accumulated tension. Joe Collins' work gang just outside the prison gates and the Gallagher-led general prison population unite in a full-scale revolt, with machine guns and Molotov cocktails. The inmates riot more for vengeance against Munsey than anything else. Underscoring the suicidal futility of it all, Collins goes through with the breakout even after learning that Munsey has laid a trap. He's simply too enraged to back down, and it all collides in bloody mayhem.
Director Jules Dassin shows skill in his character scenes, and stages the chaos and havoc of the finale with a dynamism that matches the extremes of violence. The watchtower confrontation between Collins and Munsey is a savage precursor to the end of The Wild Bunch. When shot in the back, Collins reacts almost identically to William Holden from Sam Peckinpah's film. Machine guns blaze, firebombs are thrown and guards and inmates are slaughtered by the score.
Each role and bit part in Brute Force is taken by 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, Jeff Corey, 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 unknown MGM loan-out who returned to her studio a star. For this film Hellinger promoted Universal's intoxicating beauty Yvonne De Carlo. She later paired with Lancaster in Robert Siodmak's masterpiece Criss Cross.
Brute Force has solid production values. MIklos Rozsa's pounding score announces a tale of grim foreboding; he used more or less the same cadence in a dozen noir thrillers. The prison setting is recreated on some large sets but also relies on sophisticated mattes and miniatures to establish the fortress as joined to an island by a long bridge. No such location exists, so every time we see water in a shot, a special effect is working. Lancaster and his cohorts begin their escape by tying a screaming squealer onto the front of an ore bucket and riding it down a rail line, directly toward a guard's machine gun. The explosion of pent-up hatred consumes everybody, yet the prison walls never open. This show's worldview is so negative that an annihilating, hopeless conflagration is inevitable. This one's for lovers of masochistic spectacle.
Arrow Academy's Region B Dual-Format Blu-ray + DVD of Brute Force is a welcome addition to the ranks of film noir classics on HD. A warning: it won't play on domestic Blu-ray machines; one needs an all-region player. Arrow's transfer was created by The Criterion Collection. It of course looks much better than the older DVD, with a steady image and a wider range of contrast. Arrow performed some additional digital restoration in London.
The main extra is a career piece on Burt Lancaster's films noir, hosted by his biographer Kate Buford. She presents many interesting opinions about Lancaster and the way he 'owned' any room that he entered. Lancaster did work in the circus for several years, but apparently wasn't the best-ever acrobat. An original trailer is included along with an extensive stills gallery -- which accidentally slips in a production shot from the The Naked City. The colorful insert booklet contains an insightful essay by Frank Krutnik, as well Richard Brooks' lengthy article on Mark Hellinger, written after the producer's death.
We're told that Arrow has a Region B Blu-ray of Jules Dassin's The Naked City in the works as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The dream girls in the flashbacks also serve to temper a strong homoerotic vein running through Brute Force. Burt Lancaster takes off his shirt at frequent intervals, as do some of the other prisoners. It's fairly surprising to see character actor John Hoyt strip down to show off his muscles, as he by no means qualifies as glamour boy. The makers of Brute Force certainly knew that Lancaster appealed to both women and men, and adjusted the advertising art accordingly.
Back when the movie was new, the gay appeal of action heroes was apparently no big secret. 1948's avant-garde film The Uncomfortable Man by Kent Munson and Theodore Huff is about a Travis Bickle-like loner in lower Manhattan. The alienated drifter repeatedly returns to the front of a 42nd Street movie theater playing Brute Force, to fixate on a large cardboard standee of Burt Lancaster in his sweaty t-shirt.
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