If you have to name ONE movie that’s not likely to ever be screened in a prison, this one’s a good bet. In his sophomore starring outing Burt Lancaster leads a group of rebel convicts on a do-or-die bust-out against Hume Cronyn’s utter Nazi of a warden Captain. Richard Brooks’ script and Jules Dassin’s direction don’t sugarcoat the sadistic goings-on and producer Mark Hellinger pushed the result through the Production Code office. Sure, sure, plenty of noirs are violent … but this one must have been quite a head-spinner in ’47.
The Criterion Collection 383
1947 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 98 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date September 8, 2020 / 39.95
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Yvonne De Carlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines, Anita Colby, Sam Levene, Jeff Corey, John Hoyt, Jack Overman, Roman Bohnen, Sir Lancelot, Howard Duff, Art Smith, Whit Bissell.
Cinematography: William Daniels
Film Editor: Edward Curtiss
Art Direction: John F. DeCuir, Bernard Herzbrun
Special Effects: David S. Horsley
Original Music: Miklos Rozsa
Written by Richard Brooks from a story by Robert Patterson
Produced by Mark Hellinger
Directed by Jules Dassin
Did Hollywood idealists get hopping mad when the hopes for a better America after WW2 didn’t work out? More than a few Hollywood creatives must have been itching to get their ideas and emotions out there in raw form. The Production Code had eased up during wartime, allowing the depiction of more adult situations & amorality and a lot more violence. Legendary producer Mark Hellinger’s gritty, fatalistic Hemingway adaptation The Killers had helped refine the dark thrillers that would eventually be defined as film noir. His second crime shocker turns up the heat on the prison breakout meller in more ways than one. Sweaty men in prison no longer believe in anything but busting out and taking revenge on the system. Hellinger’s only compromise with the box office are some romantic flashbacks, that also assure audiences that our guys in prison stripes aren’t, you know, more interested in each other.
When decrying the heightened level of violence on postwar theater screens, polite critics fixated on the spectacle of Richard Widmark throwing an old lady down a staircase. But some wouldn’t go near the almost unbroken series of sadistic tortures and killings that constitute Brute Force. It may be the first film noir to flirt with an apocalyptic, suicidal tone, the ‘everybody dies horribly’ syndrome. The violent wrap-up is so despairing and desolate, we have to think that writer Richard Brooks thought to himself, ‘they’ll never film this… not even Mark Hellinger could get away with this.” Hellinger must have been unstoppable, because he pulled it off.
The Killers had introduced Burt Lancaster. The instant star’s growing fan base wasn’t let down by this follow-up. More realistic prison pictures have been made and some are more graphic, but when it comes to having a negative attitude Brute Force takes the cake. The film doesn’t believe in justice or redemption in this horrible purgatory: Life is Hell, and ‘nobody really escapes.’ If the images don’t send that message, explicit dialogue does.
Brute Force is the breakout film for Jules Dassin. The stage director had earned his stripes and paid his dues at MGM, just as Elia Kazan had done at 20th Fox. Dassin doesn’t soft-sell anything in the script but instead gives the violence and cruelty extra emphasis. Dassin would proceed directly to three more noir classics (The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway, Night and the City) before fleeing to Europe to avoid a summons from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Writer Richard Brooks proved to be made of anti-HUAC Teflon, but the blacklist was particularly rough on the film’s supporting cast.
Is Brute Force anti-American? Fixing the ‘broken’ system is presented as hopeless, and outraged rebellion is put forward as the measure of a man’s dignity. The implication is that society in general is as rigged as the rotten prison. The hysterical, apocalyptic tone is anything but constructive. This one goes in the ‘outraged ode to chaos’ file.
The Production Code was put on the defensive by Brute Force’s depiction of martyred prisoners and corrupt authority figures, but producer Hellinger fought against censor interference. The explosive finale lives up to the film’s title, and more. Perhaps the only weakness is Richard Brooks’ occasional overwritten dialogue, that tilts toward preachy solemnity.
Separated from the mainland by a moat-like water channel, Westgate Prison is a hotbox of injustice ready to explode. The ineffectual & apologetic Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) has left the prisoners under the authority of the fascist-minded Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Munsey derives pleasure from physical and psychological torture, 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 a further disruption will lead to Barnes’ dismissal and his promotion, Munsey agitates to encourage the prisoners to attempt a breakout. Hard-bitten inmate Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) leads his cellblock in doing just that, allying with the prisoners’ unofficial boss Gallagher (Charles Bickford). They plan a two-pronged attack on the machine-gun tower guarding the gated bridge to freedom. Little does Munsey know that he’s loosing a rage too powerful to be controlled.
Brute Force is less about prison life than it is ‘Spartacus in the Big House.’ The Hollywood Production Code pointedly disallowed negative depictions of law enforcement, yet Brute Force’s prison guards are thugs. Captain Munsey couldn’t be more of a Nazi if he wore a swastika. Often cast as odd or ineffectual characters, actor Hume Cronyn is genuinely repulsive as the power-mad Captain. Munsey lectures his victims 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, Munsey’s fascism is directly related to sexual frustration. For 1947, this is daring film content. Few liberal movies are as politically explicit, even with the distance of allegory.
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) doesn’t care about anything except shielding the governor. Some of the guards find the situation distasteful yet follow Munsey’s commands as if the prison were a concentration camp. For his moral spokesman Brooks confects Dr. Walters (Art Smith), a defeatist alcoholic who dispenses poetic pieties about human rights and prison abuses. Walters’ pleas for decency fall on deaf ears. When he describes Munsey’s harsh methods he also invokes the film’s title:
“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 leader is a man of discretion and integrity. To further destabilize the prison, Captain Munsey purposely rats out his own squealers and stooges. But the inmates’ code of vengeance is just as cruel. The first act ends with an appallingly violent scene of retribution against 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. Did the filmmakers seriously believe Brute Force to be a valid microcosm for America? Only a fanatic subversive would suggest that the country was so rotten that a revolution was needed. I prefer to think that Hellinger, Brooks and Dassin just wanted to pull out all the stops and put the Production Code in its place.
There’s nothing radical about the film’s imposed romantic element. Soapy flashbacks are shoehorned into the storyline ‘to get women into the picture.’ Four cellmates are each given a girlfriend to motivate romantic backstories outside the prison walls. All seem to be locked up for romantic reasons. Burt Lancaster’s career criminal is redeemed by the love of a crippled girl (Ann Blyth), the reason he’s so desperate to bust out of prison. 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. By that logic, every ugly-mug in Westgate prison has a glamour-girl movie star waiting on the outside.
The ‘dames’ episodes have ‘front office suggestion’ written all over them. The movie already had a perfect dramatic solution for the Men Without Women problem — a generic portrait of an iconic ‘submissive woman’ that each man accepts as a symbol of what they’re denied in prison. ( ← )
The dream girls in the flashbacks may have been considered necessary to give the inmates heterosexual validation. Reviewers wishing to fixate on the homoerotic appeal of prison films have plenty of evidence in Brute Force. With all the sweaty men stripping down to their T-shirts, the male-male appeal had to be considerable. Burt Lancaster takes off his shirt at frequent intervals, and the character actor John Hoyt strips down to show off an impressive set of muscles.
The makers of Brute Force must have known that Lancaster appealed to both women and men, and adjusted the advertising art accordingly. I’m convinced of this because of an avant-garde film from 1948 by Kent Munson and Theodore Huff. The Uncomfortable Man is about a Travis Bickle-like alienated loner in lower Manhattan. He 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.
Aided by Miklos Rozsa’s pounding fatalistic music score, the show builds steadily toward its anticipated apocalyptic finale. Only a massacre can release the accumulated tension. Joe Collins’ work gang is just outside the prison gates; it unites with the Gallagher-led general prison population in a full-scale revolt, Molotov cocktails against machine guns. The inmates riot more for vengeance against Munsey than anything else. Underscoring the suicidal futility of the uprising, Collins goes through with the breakout even after learning that Munsey has laid a trap. He’s simply too enraged to back down.
Director Jules Dassin shows skill in his character scenes and his visual dynamism intensifies the chaos and havoc of the finale. The watchtower confrontation between Collins and Munsey is a savage precursor to the end of The Wild Bunch — success depends on who has control of a fixed machine gun. When shot in the back, Collins reacts almost identically to William Holden’s Pike Bishop. Machine guns blaze, firebombs are thrown and guards and inmates are slaughtered by the score.
“Nobody Escapes. Nobody ever escapes.”
Each role and bit part is taken by a dynamic persona, starting with holdovers from The Killers: Sam Levene, Jeff Corey and Charles McGraw. Scores of distinctive faces are cast to type: Jack Overman, Jeff Corey, Vince Barnett, Jay C. Flippen, Richard Gaines, Frank Puglia, James Bell, Howland Chamberlain, Gene Roth, Glenn Strange, Ray Teal. Even Sir Lancelot is on hand, singing some of his dialogue. Producer Hellinger would reward young Howard Duff with a showcase role in his next 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 Brute Force Hellinger promoted Universal-International’s intoxicating beauty Yvonne De Carlo. After the producer’s unexpected death, De Carlo was 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 a large studio set enhanced by sophisticated special effects. These establish that the island fortress is joined to the mainland by a long bridge. No such real location exists, so every shot showing the river is a brilliantly designed special matte effect combining paintings and miniatures.
In the shots just outside the prison walls almost everything we see is a complex special effect. Lancaster and his cohorts begin their escape by tying a screaming squealer to 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, cueing an annihilating, hopeless conflagration. This one’s for lovers of masochistic spectacle.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Brute Force upgrades their 2007 DVD, replacing a flawed transfer with a new 4K restoration performed in Berlin from early-generation elements located in England. The improved sound and picture leave the old DVD behind, as well as a 2014 Region B Blu-ray from England. The full restoration equals that of Criterion’s new The Naked City disc, released at the same time.
The very good extras are identical to those on the 2007 release. Alain Silver and James Ursini’s commentary tackles Brute Force with authoritative, academic clarity. They place the film in the context of the HUAC years, analyzing its sometimes contradictory politics. Their observations make a compelling case for Hellinger and Dassin’s film as one of the central works of the noir style. In a video piece, prison ethics and issues expert Paul Mason is on camera for a documentary about prison films, promoting the idea that prisons are an archaic institution that needs to be abolished.
The insert booklet carries an excellent essay by Michael Atkinson and an amusing appreciation of Mark Hellinger taken from a 1947 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The booklet also reprints several amusing memos and letters from Hellinger’s battle with Code censor Joseph Breen. Hellinger aggressively objects to being told to do anything with his movie, on the principle that his integrity is being challenged. I wish that the producer had not died so soon; he might have become a formidable defender of Hollywood freedoms during the HUAC years.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Audio commentary with Alain Silver and James Ursini; interview with Paul Mason, editor of Captured by the Media: Prison Discourse in Popular Culture; featurette from 2017 on the film’s array of acting styles by David Bordwell; Stills gallery; Trailer. Illustrated insert booklet with an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson, a 1947 profile of producer Mark Hellinger, and rare correspondence between Hellinger and Production Code administrator Joseph Breen.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 6, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson