A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, February 24, 2017

Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947)

Surprisingly violent for a film made under the Production Code, Brute Force gives us a prison-break story in which we root for the prisoners, but it still comes down heavily on the crime-does-not-pay moral: "Nobody escapes," says one of the movie's few survivors to the camera at the end. "Nobody ever really escapes." Under Jules Dassin's direction, Richard Brooks's screenplay tries to have it both ways: The cons are heroic and the guards are villainous, but law and order must prevail. The easy way out of this is to kill off both the heroes and the villains. The chief hero is Joe Collins, played by Burt Lancaster with his usual handsomely bullish intensity. The chief villain is the head guard, Capt. Munsey, played against type by Hume Cronyn. The imbalance between the two is exhibited early in the film when Munsey tries to dress down Collins but is confronted with a massive Lancastrian cold shoulder. But Munsey has guile on his side, along with ambition to supplant the weakling Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen), who is under political pressure to toughen up enforcement in the prison, from which reports of unrest among the inmates have been emerging. Dassin tells us all we need to know about Munsey when we see him in his office, which has little homoerotic touches in its decor like a picture of a male torso, along with a large Hitlerian photograph of Munsey himself. While beating a prisoner with a rubber hose to elicit information about a planned prison break, Munsey turns up the volume on the Wagner he is playing on the phonograph. Not that the cons are any less gentle: To punish a prisoner who collaborated with the guards, they force him into the machine that stamps out license plates, and during the climactic prison break, a stoolie is strapped to the front of a mine car and shoved out into the gunfire from the guards. The film never really lightens things up, though there are some flashback scenes involving tender moments between some of the prisoners and what the credits bill as "the women on the 'outside,'" including Ann Blyth as Collins's cancer-stricken wife. There are some good performances from Charles Bickford as the con who edits the prison newspaper and joins the escape plan after he learns that his expected parole has been put on indefinite hold, and Art Smith as the prison's cynical, alcoholic doctor, along with solid support from Sam Levene, Jeff Corey, Howard Duff, and a horde of well-chosen ugly-mug extras.