Brute Force

Brute Force
Director: Jules Dassin
Screenplay: Richard Brooks (story by Robert Patterson)
Stars: Burt Lancaster (Joe Collins), Hume Cronyn (Capt. Munsey), Charles Bickford (Gallagher), Yvonne De Carlo (Gina Ferrara), Ann Blyth (Ruth), Ella Raines (Cora Lister), Anita Colby (Flossie), Sam Levene (Louie Miller #7033), Jeff Corey (“Freshman” Stack), John Hoyt (Spencer), Jack Overman (Kid Coy), Roman Bohnen (Warden A.J. Barnes)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1948
Country: U.S.
Brute Force: Criterion Collection DVD
Brute ForceTough as sinew and bracing in its raw depictions of entrapment and sadism, Jules Dassin’s Brute Force is a stunning product of the twilight of the studio era, just after it had hit a high point during World War II and just before it would be dismantled by the oligopoly-busting “Paramount decrees” and fall under the dark shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Given the film’s tough thematic underpinnings and relentlessly antiauthoritarian tone, it is not surprisingly that many of its key collaborators found themselves on the wrong end of HUAC’s investigation into Leftist politics, particularly Dassin, who had to flee to Europe within a year.

In simple terms, Brute Force is a prison melodrama with shades of film noir, but beneath its surface beats an angry pulse of radical social politics. I would not be the first critic or commentator to note the film’s Nazi-inspired imagery, especially its prison-as-concentration camp visuals, complete with guards in dark trench coats and a tower equipped with a huge machine gun. The film, which was written by Richard Brooks during a period of intense creativity in which he also wrote Crossfire (1947) and The Blackboard Jungle (1955), takes the noir themes of entrapment and fatalism in a cruel postwar environment and ramps them to the shattering point by situating them inside the dank walls of an Alcatraz-like penitentiary.

Burt Lancaster, whose hulking, sullen figure had been introduced a few years before as a doomed former prize-fighter in The Killers (1946), stars as Joe Collins, the leader of a group of imprisoned everymen who are tormented both psychologically and physically by Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), the prison’s fascistic head guard. The film’s sentiments, despite the strictures of the Production Code, are clearly and unequivocally on the side of the prisoners, who are depicted as victims whose crimes are so minimal (one character embezzled funds to buy a mink coat for his unhappy wife) that it is impossible to justify their suffering as deserved. In a sense, this loads the deck, but Brute Force, as its title might imply, is not about subtlety or shades of gray. Rather, it is about stark dichotomies and even starker conflicts.

The prison is overseen by an inefficient bureaucrat named Barnes (Roman Bohnen), but the real muscle inside the prison walls is Munsey. One could argue that this is a cheat because it allows the film to avoid condemning the entire prison system by depicting Munsey as the source of all corruption (for example, when Munsey beats a prisoner in his office, the other guards outside react with disgust). This is mainly because the Production Code could not allow the wholesale condemnation of the prison system. However, Brute Force ultimately posits just such a critique because, even if Munsey is a solitary figure in his brutishness, the system itself is to blame for not only allowing such a figure to persist in its midst, but to flourish and eventually rise to the level of complete control.

The filmmakers were brilliant in casting Hume Cronyn, an actor of slight physical attributes, to play Munsey. Despite his small stature, he projects a sense of complete control and frightening calm, at one point boasting of how he is able to walk among the inmates unarmed because they “respect” him. Munsey’s tactics range from whispering cruel lies to an inmate about his wife’s unfaithfulness, to a brutal scene of torture in which he unleashes on another inmate with a piece of hard rubber tubing while Wagner fills the soundtrack. He is also a supreme hypocrite, strolling through the dining hall and casually talking to the very prisoners he will later torment, and at one point chastising a guard for hitting a prisoner whose death Munsey will later ensure.

The violence in Brute Force, both physical and psychological, was far beyond what most American viewers had seen at the time. The film barely made it through the Production Code Administration, which objected to its antiauthoritarian tones and unwavering brutality. Yet, that is precisely the core of the film and what makes it resonate so many years later, especially in its near-apocalyptic prison-break finale whose existential intensity was echoed years later in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).

Dassin was still a relatively unknown director when he made Brute Force, having helmed seven mostly low-budget features over the previous five years. Dassin was aided greatly by cinematographer William Daniels, who at the time was best known as Greta Garbo’s favorite cameraman. Daniels was a consummate Hollywood veteran, with dozens of films under his belt, including Eric von Stroheim’s legendary Greed (1924) and Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939). Brute Force’s opening shot of the prison from an extreme low angle with rain pouring down into the lens immediately ranks alongside the opening of Citizen Kane (1941) in the artfully proficient setting of a dark, foreboding tone. It’s an image you can never quite forget, and one that haunts the entire film.

Brute Force Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini
  • Interview with Paul Mason, author of Capturing the Media: Prison Discourse in Popular Culture
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Stills gallery
  • Insert booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Michael Atkinson, a 1947 profile of producer Mark Hellinger, and rare correspondence between Hellinger and Production Code administrator Joseph Breen over the film’s content
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 17, 2007

    Criterion’s striking new high-definition transfer was made from a 35mm fine-grain composite print and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. The image is amazing, with inky dark blacks, excellent shadow detail, and strong contrast that doesn’t lose the subtle shades of gray. The opening shots of the prison are worth freeze-framing just to admire their contrast and detail. The digitally restored monaural soundtrack was taken from the 35mm fine-grain composite optical print track. It sounds extremely good for its age, with good sonic detail and a complete lack of ambient hiss.
    The audio commentary by noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini is a fascinating listen. Not only do they provide crucial historical and social context for the film, but they point out all kinds of tiny details you would otherwise miss, such as the fact that composer Miklós Rózsa includes a brief bit of his score from the prototypical noir classic Double Indemnity (1944) in the opening moments and the fact that Munsey has a picture in his office of a Rodin statue titled “The Rebellious Slave.” Also included on the disc is an imminently worthwhile 16-minute video interview with criminologist and anti-prison advocate Paul Mason, editor of Captured by the Media: Prison Discourse in Popular Culture. Mason talks about the history of the prison film genre, the place of Brute Force in it, and his views on the relationships between media depictions of the prison system and governmental policy. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer and a stills gallery of about 40 production stills, studio shots, and poster art.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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