by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Jules Dassin
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Ann Blyth
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94%
PLOT: A convicted felon tries to organize a prison break under the nose of a sadistic chief guard who is on the verge of becoming the new warden.
In Brute Force, released seventy-five years ago, we are witness to: a man getting crushed by a metal press, a suicide, a brutal interrogation with the help of a length of metal pipe, a prisoner machine-gunning dead cops out of sheer frustration (okay, you got me, that part is off camera), and the kind of nihilistic ending that you typically only see in old French films. Wages of Fear, for example. I mean, this movie is violent by TODAY’S standards, let alone just a couple of years after World War II ended.
Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster in only his second film) is just getting out of solitary confinement at Westgate Penitentiary when he sees one of his cellmates being driven out of prison…in a hearse. This only solidifies his resolve to escape with the help of his remaining cellmates. Meanwhile, we get glimpses of life elsewhere in the prison. The current warden is a trembling coward who addresses the prisoners only through a P.A. system in his office. The prison physician, Dr. Walters, sees injustice and top-down barbarism on a daily basis and has his own method of escape: whiskey. Inmate informants and stool pigeons are dealt with promptly and carefully.
Looming above everyone, despite his relatively small stature, is Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). He has the real power at Westgate. He rarely raises his voice and even stops his lieutenant from beating a prisoner unnecessarily. But he unflinchingly doles out punishments and even strong-arms other convicts into ratting out their buddies. Of course, the stoolies are usually found out and wind up dead. Shame about that.
The crux of the story is the escape plan, an ambitious endeavor involving capturing the yard tower which controls the gate and lowers the drawbridge – an actual drawbridge! – to the mainland. Between making these plans and various other intrigues involving the warden and an imperious visiting government official, we are also treated to flashbacks showing how some of Joe’s cellmates wound up in prison to begin with. Here the film gets a little overly melodramatic, a typical trait of many dramas of the ‘40s, but director Jules Dassin wisely doesn’t dwell on them for too long. The scenes do just enough to create more audience empathy for these “bad men” without bathing in soap.
I put “bad men” in quotes because these guys are, in fact, criminals, but they’re also our protagonists. When it comes to Joe himself, it seems clear by his demeanor and his flashback that he wasn’t just a criminal, he was a leader of criminals, head of his own little gang. This is not a very nice man. The only convict sharing a cell with Joe who might conceivably be considered a “good guy” is Tom, a man who embezzled money from the company he worked for to buy his frustrated wife a fur coat. Everyone else looks capable of perpetrating real violence.
Why do we root for these men? Partly because it’s in our nature to support anyone who is out to give authority figures the finger. From Cool Hand Luke all the way to Hannibal Lecter and beyond, we are instinctively drawn to men and women who are bucking the system. But it’s especially prominent in this movie where we see these men at the mercy of a broken system that eventually revokes all their privileges, even visiting hours, in the name of restoring discipline. Armed guards watch the prisoners everywhere, even in the chapel. There is no longer any attempt at actual rehabilitation. In the prison’s auto garage, a prisoner is asked what he’s learned while working there. His answer: “I’ve learned that, when I get out, I don’t wanna be a mechanic.” He hasn’t learned anything. He’s just learned that it’s better to not get caught. For this we pay our taxes?
So, yes, there is a strong message in Brute Force. It’s not especially subtle, especially during the liberal Dr. Walters’ various monologues about the corrupting nature of power and the futility of expecting lasting behavioral changes through punitive measures.
But what stood out to me was the unexpected level of violence in the story. Sure, some of it is discreetly left off screen, but what is left to the imagination can be infinitely worse than what the screen shows us. Case in point: Se7en, where we are always shown murder scenes, never the murders themselves. Or the infamous ear scene in Reservoir Dogs, where we never actually see the deed being done, yet it’s remembered as one of the most violent scenes in film history.
In Brute Force, during an interrogation, we see Captain Munsey winding up to deliver several blows with a lead pipe to the head of a handcuffed prisoner. We push past the prisoner, so we only see Munsey, and down comes the first blow. We hear the impact, then cut to just outside Munsey’s office where other officers are killing time playing cards or writing reports. And through the doorway we hear more impacts, one after the other after the other. Some officers look uncomfortably toward the office but make no move to stop what’s happening in there. One officer is so disturbed he throws down his cards and stalks away. Right away, we’re thinking, jeez, if HE’S that upset, something terrible is going on in that office.
This is not the kind of “realness” I was expecting from a 1947 film. And it doesn’t end there. There are other little vignettes of violence during the climactic escape attempt that made me gasp, including a hand-to-hand fight where one guy appears to be getting hit in the head and neck with a belt of machine gun bullets…for real. At least twice. Looked convincing to me, anyway.
Jules Dassin (1911-2008) is known for directing some of the best loved film noirs of all time, including The Naked City , Night and the City , and Rififi , which won him the Best Director award at Cannes that year. His best films are steeped in atmosphere and a fatalistic sense of…well, fate, an idea that no matter how hard we kick and scream at the walls of our existence, any attempts to escape will be met with massive resistance and will most likely end in failure, or at best only a partial victory. Not a particularly uplifting outlook, but who says all movies must have a happy ending? Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you. By the end of Brute Force, Dassin ingeniously combines those two outcomes. Tricky.