Monday, March 3, 2014

Movie Monday: Brute Force

Inside prison, there is only...Brute Force!
Jules Dassin's 1947 film Brute Force is, as the title suggests, a tough-as-nails expose on life on the Inside:
The film opens with convict Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster, on his way to legendary status) being led out of a long stretch in Solitary Confinement. He is escorted by a guard and the head of security, the instantly-unlikeable Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn):
Munsey mocks Collins, and as the torrential rain pours, we see we are in for some tough going. With the prison packed to the gills, Munsey and the warden (Roman Bohnen) are warned that the prison is a powder keg waiting to go off. The prison's doctor, the often-soused Dr. Walters (Art Smith) has sympathy for the inmates, but his input is ignored by Munsey completely.

Collins learns that his wife Ruth (Ann Blyth) has cancer, and needs an operation. But she won't go through with it unless Joe is by her side, which lights the fuse in Collins: he has to escape.

At this point in the film, it feels like we are set up to see Collins as our hero. Sure, he's a convict, but clearly he's not that bad a guy, right? Well, not really: as revenge on a fellow inmate who planted the evidence that landed Collins in Solitary, he organizes a hit on the guy, which takes place in the prison machine shop, concluding in a, well, brutal act of violence, something almost akin to a horror movie.

Munsey starts to get wind that something is up, and responds by all-but-eliminating all the inmates' privileges and even parole hearings. This sets everyone on edge even more, but Munsey just keeps pushing:
The middle of the film gives us a series of flashbacks of Collins' other cellmates (played by Whit Bissell, John Hoyt, Howard Keel, and others), where we learn how they all ended up in the joint. This being a film noir, the reasons are almost exactly the same for each man: dames! Yvone DeCarlo and the gorgeous Ella Raines both help lead their men down the path of destruction, leaving them to this awful place.

Back at the prison, tensions continue to mount. Collins learns that Munsey knows about his escape plan, and Dr. Walters begs Collins to call it off. But Collins has been pushed too far, and goes ahead even though it's essentially a suicide mission.

And it's here, in the film's final series of scenes depicting the breakout (inspired by the real life "Battle of Alcatraz"), that Bruce Force moves from Very Good to Scarily Great. I say "scarily", because the level of violence, terror, and bloodshed on display is simply astonishing when you consider this was made in 1947. Fires rage, bullets fly, prison guards are attacked by the inmates in something akin a zombie movie:
How director Jules Dassin got away with these scenes is beyond me. Sure, the film contains a lot of ham-handed moralizing that censors demanded back then, but Munsey is such an unrepentant monster (having only known Cronyn in his later "grandpa" years, seeing him as a heartless bastard here is shocking) that you can't help but side with the prisoners, even as they become little more than savages. His final confrontation with Collins feels like something out of Frankenstein.

Brute Force is, in the end, not a lot of fun, but it features such beautiful images (the prison, with its deep shadows and crazy angles, at times feels like it was made by German Expressionists with the sole purpose of crushing souls), sharp acting, and a gut-buster of an ending that I would recommend it to anyone interested in the prison film genre, Burt Lancaster, or film noir.

The fine folks at the Criterion Collection released Brute Force on DVD in 2007, with all sorts of extras, including a commentary track by film historians. I just might have to pick that up!



morganmorgan said...

Love this fick-- a Prison Noir Classic! BTW~ Did you catch Sesame Street's Mr. Hooper in the chow line?

rob! said...

I did not catch that, wow!

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