Jules Dassin, 1947
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford
“Nobody ever escapes.”
The prisoners of cell R17 plan to escape Westgate Prison after the kind, tolerant warden is forced to impose stricter measures and the prison’s security chief, Captain Munsey, is allowed to exercise his sadism unchecked. After returning from some time in solitary confinement, prisoner Joe Collins organizes the men and builds a plan around the drainage pipe they are forced to dig just outside the heavily guarded prison walls. Meanwhile, Joe’s sick wife refuses to have a vital operation unless he is by her side, and another prisoner is convinced – by Munsey – that his wife wants a divorce, resulting in the man’s suicide. Once the warden resigns against his will and the clock counts down to zero hour for the prisoners’ escape plan, chaos breaks out in the prison.
Though there were a slew of prison films in the ‘30s – loosely a companion genre to the first round of gangster films – Brute Force is arguably the first truly important prison film, one that would go on to influence all future movies about escaping from the clink. Director Jules Dassin and screenwriter Richard Brooks (Crossfire) manage to cover a wide range of issues that made Hollywood – and McCarthy-era America – wildly uncomfortable. This is not a prison film about guilt and justice, or punishment and repentance; rather it is about class warfare, social control, and the evils of political power.
Inspired by a violent escape attempt at Alcatraz in 1946, there are unavoidable parallels to Nazi concentration camps. There is a tremendous sense of community within the prison, which feels more like a POW camp and reminded me somewhat of Jean Renoir’s Le grande illusion (1937). These men are not hardened criminals and their crimes are largely portrayed as minor offenses, the products of bad decisions brought about by love, war, and poverty. Though films as early as Night Train to Munich (1940) depicted references to or brief snippets of camp life, these are dull and hygienic examples that shy away from the true horrors (which the public was ignorant of until 1945).
Brute Force is a filthy, disgusting film that focuses on sweat, blood, and human filth. It wouldn’t be difficult to draw a cinematic line between this film and Pasolini’s Salo (1975), which is a more academic evolution of Dassin’s themes of forced labor, exploitation, extreme human suffering (including suicide), sewage, and filth. In both films, men are part of a Kafkaesque, almost absurdist post-war machinery where bureaucracy reigns and grinds humanity into the dirt. Munsey is a fascist and sadist set free by this bureaucracy and shots of him are unmistakably filled with a sense of Nazi style – a portrait of himself in his office, pressed black uniforms, jackboots, and a row of gleaming rifles.
Following with common film noir themes, the prisoners of Brute Force are primarily soldiers who have survived the grisly death and dismemberment of war to find that there is no place for them on the home front. They have been conditioned to a reality of violence, of which Dassin suggests there is no escape. And Brute Force certainly is violent, shockingly so for the time period. In one of the film’s most gripping scenes, an informant is crushed to death in the prison’s auto-shop machinery, as Dassin weaves a dizzying choreography of workers hammering, drilling, and wielding blowtorches to distract the guards from his murder. In another scene, Sam Levene’s character refuses to talk to Munsey about the escape plans and is made an example of: he is handcuffed to a chair and beaten with an iron bar while classical music mutes some of his agonized cries.
The typical noir element of doomed romance is present in the form of a calendar pinup stuck to the wall of cell R17 that reminds each prisoner of the woman they love – who is also the source of their troubles in one form or another. The roster of lovely ladies includes Yvonne De Carlo (she would reunite with Lancaster in Criss Cross), Ella Raines (Phantom Lady and The Suspect), and Ann Blyth (Mildred Pierce). There is even a nod to the femme fatale in the form of Anita Colby’s Flossie, a gambling, gun-toting dame who pretends to help a man (the flaneur character played by John Hoyt) out of a tight spot, only to steal his gun, his money, and his car.
Noir regular Burt Lancaster (Criss Cross, The Killers, I Walk Alone) shines in his finest role as the Everyman convict, Joe, who organizes the escape and punishes those who double cross him. Hume Cronyn (Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat) is unforgettable and slimy, particularly when he spouts vaguely Nietzschean psycho-babble about how might makes right and nature condones violence. Other regular noir actors appear, including Charles Bickford (Fallen Angel), Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin), Sam Levene (The Killers), Art Smith (In a Lonely Place), and more. Worth a final mention is the performance from singer Sir Lancelot (I Walked with a Zombie, To Have and Have Not), who has a memorable turn as Calypso, a prisoner who sings nearly all of his dialogue and narrates some of the events in song, adding a bitter sweet touch to the proceedings.
William H. Daniels’ cinematography is absolutely breathtaking and if nothing else I’ve said about the film seems compelling, at least watch it for shots of almost silvery black and white cinematography that is at once oppressive and dazzling. Not a single shot is wasted. Dassin must have had a fair amount of control, as this is the type of work that would appear in his future film noir efforts, such as The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway, and Night and the City.
Available on DVD from Criterion, Brute Force comes with the highest possible recommendation. The Hays Code apparently determined the fatalistic ending, which packs an incredible punch and must be seen to be believed. Though it may not seem shocking compared to violence in contemporary films (a lot of worse things happen in HBO’s Oz, for instance), but the events are both harrowing and mesmerizing. Dassin was rewarded for this achievement by being blacklisted from Hollywood, thanks to McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1950 he fled the U.S. and permanently moved to Europe, where he continued filming noir. The themes of punishment versus rehabilitation and a pervasive culture of violence strengthened by class war and bureaucracy are more pertinent today than ever and Brute Force remains a vitally important film, one that you must see.