I was underwhelmed by the “legendary” 1947 prison movie “Brute Force,” directed by the “legendary” director Jules Dassin, who was blacklisted in Hollywood a few years later and went to Europe to make some critically acclaimed films. It’s hard for me to fathom that “Brute Force” was considered “shocking” and “gritty” in its day. It does not seem “gritty” now. Indeed, the inmates jammed into cell R-17, where about half the movie takes place, are preternaturally considerate of each other. They are like one of the diverse platoons in World War II Hollywood propaganda movies, getting along so well despite their divergent backgrounds. They even agree on a particular picture of a calendar girl to hang in the cell and absorb all the inmates’ loves for women they remember on the outside. (It’s flashbacks that provide roles for women in the movie, though these dissipate the tension of the prison storylines.)
It’s not that I was seeking violence, but the boys all seem to get along so well… Elsewhere there is terror and the execution of a “stool pigeon,” and there is a vicious, power-mad official increasing his control, but the cell is a surprisingly happy family. Another surprise is the lack of rivalry between clique leaders (a young Burt Lancaster and the eternally gruff Charles Bickford).
The two main storylines are prisoners planning an escape attempt and the sadistic de facto overlord of the prison, Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) consolidating control with the approval of the state bureaucracy. Munsey’s methods are opposed sporadically and ineffectually by the warden (Roman Bohnen), seen through and criticized by the alcoholic prison doctor (Art Smith) who has good relations with the prisoners in general and Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) in particular. The doctor advocates humane treatment, but the devious bully’s harshness is what the state wants more of.
There are some compelling sequences with bravura editing, especially the one in the machine shop and the prison breakout when it finally occurs. Cronyn chews up a lot of scenery as the fascist bully. Lancaster clenches his jaw and is determined to play the irresistible force to Cronyn’s immovable object. Smith provides a liberal alternative to identifying with the main antagonists. The other characters are underdeveloped, and a lot of dialogue is stilted.
No doubt, the censors limited what could be shown, particularly, possible endings. Perhaps, as later in From Here to Eternity, the censors required that the sadistic captain and the mistreatment of prisoners be portrayed as anomalous. However, I don’t think the awkwardness of the overall construction and the boringness of more than a few scenes can be blamed on the censors.
Dassin had a fine cast (including Whitt Bissell, Jeff Corey, Howard Duff, Ann Blyth and Yvonne DeCarlo), an above-average musical score from master film-composer Miklós Rózsa (Double Indemnity, Spellbound) and a dead proto-Nazi, Richard Wagner. The great cinematographer William H. Daniels, who won an Oscar for shooting Dassin’s “Naked City” the next year, provided a cinema noir look—when he got outside cell R-17, the warden’s office, and the doctor’s office (which was not often enough!). At least one of the backstories is within the corrupt urban milieu (mined with femmes fatales) of cinema noir, but this is a prison movie, not a noir, despite what the box says!
I think that if Dassin had thrown away the backstories and focused more on the break-out that “Brute Force” would have been better. Much of the Dassin legend derives from the meticulous filming of the heist in “Rififi” and the best part of “Topkapi” is similarly the break-in rather than the development of the motley group of characters. At least there is not the pseudo-hip stating-the-obvious narration of “Naked City,” an even more overrated Dassin police drama with the curdled charm of Barry Fitzgerald on display.
For those not interested in assessing the oeuvre of Jules Dassin or the history of prison movies, the interest of “Brute Force:” might be in the supporting actors or in the showcasing first lead role of Burt Lancaster. Having recently seen or seen again Cronyn in Lifeboat, People Will Talk, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the Seventh Cross, I realize that he had bigger and better roles in 1940s movies than the British actress he married and worked with on-stage and on-screen from 1944 until her death in 1994, Jessica Tandy.
Other Dassin films
“The Canterville Ghost” (1944) is a silly movie with a very hammy Charles Laughton that bears little relation to the story on which it is based.
“The Naked City” (1948) does not seem at all fresh to me. It plods along alternating between ersatz knowingness (the narration) and ersatz charm (Barry Fitzgerald, who is not quite as hammy as Laughton).
“Thieves’ Highway” (1949), a noir about truckers and the San Francisco produce market starring Richard Conte
“Never on Sunday” (1960), which made Melina Mercouri an international star, playing a cheerful prostitute, and launched the theme song as an international pop hit. Dassin himself plays an American professor who needs to be shown how to live and plays it badly.
“Topkapi” (1964): I think the movie and Mercouri are supposed to be charming, but didn’t charm me, though the movie is fitfully amusing (Peter Ustinov) and the main event is suspenseful.
“10:30 P.M., Summer” (1966), which is awful, with Mercouri flailing and for a time sheltering a fugitive.
It’s been a long time since I saw “Rififi” or the noir shot in London with Richard Widmark, “Night and the City.” I have positive memories of both and, perhaps, if I saw them again, I might be less willing to challenge Dassin’s exalted rank (Once upon a time, I also liked his “Phaedra” with Mercouri in the title role and Anthony Perkins as the stepson for whom she lusts.)
©2018, Stephen O. Murray