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Brute Force (1947)
At overcrowded Westgate Penitentiary, where violence and fear are the norm and the warden has less power than guards and leading prisoners, the least contented prisoner is tough, single-minded Joe Collins. Most of all, Joe hates chief guard Captain Munsey, a petty dictator who glories in absolute power. After one infraction too many, Joe and his cell-mates are put on the dreaded drain pipe detail; prompting an escape scheme that has every chance of turning into a bloodbath.
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
Sir Lancelot ... Calypso
Vince Barnett ... Muggsy
Jay C. Flippen ... Hodges (guard)
Director: Jules Dassin
I've read recent reviews of this film that condemn it for being "outdated" or not "relevant". Um, hello? This movie is is fifty-seven years old! As such, we are treated to typical 1940s Hollywood stereotypes and acting methods, not to mention references to the recently completed war. Yet, even within the pitfalls of the studio system, this film shines as a great example of film noir.
Director Jules Dassin is brilliant with light, and sets the example for the French "new wave" of cinema. Lighting Burt Lancaster from the side, or from underneath, makes him and the other actors look almost surreal.
Most of the dialogue is "clipped" and preposterous, but films from this era often suffer from this same problem. Yet "Brute Force" retains its original power simply by virtue of the dynamite performances, the stirring score, and the gritty techniques of Dassin.
I had to smile during the scene where Hume Cronyn's character turns up the Wagner on his hi-fi so the guards outside his door won't hear the inmate he's about to beat scream. This was mimicked during David Lynch's ground-breaking TV series "Twin Peaks" when a character turned up his radio before he beat his wife. Of course beating people isn't funny, but seeing obvious references in cinema is always a kick.
I highly recommend "Brute Force" to anyone who appreciates the art of film, great directing, and fine performances.
In the Westgate Penitentiary, the Warden A. J. Barden (Roman Bohnen) is a weak man, and the institution is actually ruled by the ambitious and sadistic Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyon), who uses violence, fear and treachery to control the prisoners. After the suicide of Tom Lister (Whit Bissell), one of the inmates of cell R17, provoked by Captain Munsey, the prisoners loses their privileges and rest of the group of cell R-17 leaded by Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is sent to hard and insalubrious work in the drain pipe. Joe uses a successful strategy of war trying to escape, attacking the tower of the penitentiary from the outside with his men, and from inside with the team leaded by the leader Gallagher (Charles Bickford). However, the plan fails, ending in a bloodshed.
Sixty years after the original release date, "Brute Force" is still a great movie of prison. The story is very well constructed, with flashbacks showing the connection of three inmates with his women. The violence is not explicitly disclosed like in the present days, but the cruelty of Captain Munsey can be understood even by the most naive viewer. The direction of Jules Dassin is outstanding with many memorable scenes. Yvonne De Carlo has a minor participation, but a strong role. The moralist message in the end, when Dr. Walters (Alt Smith) tells that nobody can escape from penitentiaries, does not spoil this great movie.
Burt Lancaster in his career made two classic prison story films, Brute Force and Birdman of Alcatraz. Both have their share of fans. Birdman though is much longer and it is solely about Lancaster and his long incarceration. In Brute Force Lancaster heads a good ensemble cast and it is as much about the incarcerators as well as the incarcerated.
One of the things that can't be overlooked about prison films and in this case Brute Force does is that all kinds of anti-social folk go into prison. Just why are they there? Notice there seem to be no sex crime perpetrators in the population, not a realistic picture by any means. Or any narcotics offenders among them either and that was changing right around the time Brute Force was made.
Still director Jules Dassin gets some great performances out of his cast. From the jailer's point of view, the politics of the penal system never got as good a portrayal until Robert Redford's Brubaker came along over 30 years later. I like the performances of weak and burned out warden Roman Bohnen, the alcoholic doctor Art Smith and of course Hume Cronyn who got his career role out of this film.
Once seen you will not forget Hume Cronyn as Captain Munsey. He is a type who unfortunately is attracted to corrections work, a brutal sadist who probably tortures animals in his spare time. Now that is not an indictment of all prison guards not by any means. Still people like that do make their way into that line of work.
Which raises an interesting question. Being a corrections officer is one of the toughest jobs going. You are in fact going outnumbered among a group of very antisocial people and going among them unarmed. For your own survival you have to establish a reputation for toughness and fast. Bearing the necessity for that in mind, is there a point where that job will turn you into a Captain Munsey?
Brute Force coming out as it did post World War II with the holocaust discovery fresh in everyone's mind is disturbing and terrifying. How easy is it to slide in brutality when you have that kind of authority over people? I think that's the question director Jules Dassin is asking of his audience.
The coordinated prison break at the climax of the film still almost sixty years later still has a powerful jolt to it. With the odds very much stacked against them the men still do it, even after they know they've been informed on. You won't forget it or Brute Force.
# Former Warner Bros. producer Mark Hellinger, who had started his own independent production unit at Universal-International, wanted 'Wayne Morris' to star in his first picture, The Killers (1946). Warners wouldn't loan Morris out, so Hellinger cast the unknown Burt Lancaster in his first movie. It made Lancaster a star.