Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Brute Force (1947)

“Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you've served your time, or when you're dead!” - Gallager (Charles Bickford) in Brute Force.

Prison films were most popular in the 1930s when dozens of movies about men serving hard time were churned out. The films were an allegory for the bigger problems in society. Depression era movie goers liked seeing prisoners in Invisible Stripes or Hell's Highway have victories -even small ones- against authority. The men, usually serving time because of mitigating circumstances, were surrounded by violent men and tried to survive despite oppressive living conditions.

In the 1940s director Jules Dassin and writer Richard Brooks succeed in making a different kind of prison film. Brute Force, unlike Dassin's next film The Naked City, is filled with an unrelenting sense of despair. Instead of the prisoners being surrounded by violent criminals a prison guard is the villain. In fact, all the prisoners in cell R17 have back stories (told in overtly romantic flashbacks) that show these guys at least in their own minds are all just victims of circumstance. Dassin later regretted not having any truly violent men populate the prison and I agree. There should be at least one person in the prison that deserves to be there. However, I liked seeing the camaraderie between convicts even when they team up to kill a stoolie or plan a prison break.

The one evil in the film is Hume Cronyn (of all people!) playing the sadistic Captain Munsey. Wearing a tight Nazi-like uniform, prison guard Munsey is power hungry and abuses the men under him either with a rubber hose or just by mental torture. The warden of the prison is weak and Munsey's control is never called into question until he finally takes over the prison.

Although Burt Lancaster is the star of the movie, the film is really about all the prisoners in cell R17 and the men that help them try to escape. The film is filled with familiar faces: Jeff Corey (Fourteen Hours, Sirocco), John Hoyt (The Come On), Charles Bickford (Fallen Angel, Whirlpool), Sam Levene (The Killers), Whit Bissell (Raw Deal, He Walked By Night), and even Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin) are prisoners. Working with but not necessarily for Captain Munsey are Art Smith (In a Lonely Place) as the drunk prison doctor and Jay C. Flippen (They Live By Night) as a kind guard.

During long hours in their cell, the R17 prisoners gaze at a pinup girl that reminds them each of a past love. They all take turns telling their tales of woman they've known outside of jail. The stories aren't all that convincing but they are entertaining - especially John Hoyt's wild night with femme fatale Flossy (Anne Colby). The flashbacks seem more like a way for Universal to have some of their leading women in the film. Playing the girlfriends and wives are a number of noir dames: Ann Blyth (Mildred Pierce), Ella Raines (Phantom Lady), and Yvonne De Carlo (Criss Cross) all make appearances.

What really drives the men to try to break from their captors is Captain Munsey. Munsey becomes so powerful he even manages to strong arm the warden. All the men's activities are taken away, parole hearings are suspended and no visitors are allowed. Finally the men have enough and Lancaster comes up with a plan based on a war-time attack explained by fellow prisoner Soldier (Howard Duff) with chess pieces. The plan is to take out the guard tower and open the gate by attacking it from two sides. They know that many will die during the break in the yard because the one machine gun in the tower will be aimed at only one of the two revolting groups. They take the chance knowing that either one of the attacks will get through while the guards are focusing on the other.

Lancaster convinces a small group of inmates that the break (only dreamed of by others) would happen 1215 the next day during their work in a sewer drain. The men object. They have no money and no plans for what to do once they do get outside the walls. Everyone knows the plans will ultimately fail but eventually they all agree to do it.

Just as Lancaster predicts, one of the men leaks information to Munsey who anticipates the break. Even so, the attack of the tower goes ahead. The break turns out to be an incredibly violent and fiery attempt (lensed by famed cinematographer William Daniels). Most of the small group are shot dead including Lancaster. He does, however, manage to kill Munsey. Unfortunately, when Lancaster gets to the switch to open the gates of the prison, he sees that Charles Bickford - in a desperate attempt to crash the gate with a truck - has actually pinned the giant gates shut. Lancaster dies at the switch frustrated that he ultimately failed.

This was Dassin's first film noir (if you don't count the light comic noir Two Smart People). In just a few years, he would go on to make The Naked City, Thieves' Highway, and his best films Night and the City and later, in 1955, Du rififi chez les hommes.

Prison films have always been popular and they still are. Brute Force managed to stand out as an original work which is a hard thing to do considering the limited amount of things you can do in a prison movie. Brute Force shows men behind bars suffering an overwhelming sense of despair which eventually builds to a violent crescendo that's still shocking today.

Written by Steve-O


  1. This was a great way to pay tribute to a great director. It really is an unforgettable movie, bleak even by the standards of its bleak genres.

  2. Thanks for the great tributes to Dassin and Widmark. I read NOTW every week without fail. I agree with Campaspe on the force of Brute Force.

  3. I was just a little kid but my folks took me to this movie. I recall Hume Cronyn always doing something very mean to somebody.

    Jack Davidson