Friday, April 2, 2010

#23: Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947)

Released: June 30, 1947

Director: Jules Dassin; Screenplay: Richard Brooks based on a story by Robert Patterson; Cinematography: William Daniels; Music: Miklós Rózsa; Producer: Mark Hellinger; Studio: Universal

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Joe Collins), Hume Cronyn (Capt. Munsey), Charles Bickford (Gallagher), Yvonne De Carlo (Gina Ferrara), Art Smith (Dr. Walters), Ann Blyth (Ruth), Ella Raines (Cora Lister), Anita Colby (Flossie), Whit Bissell (Tom Lister), Sam Levene (Louie Miller), 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. Flipped (Hodges), Richard Gaines (McCollum), Frank Puglia (Ferrara), James Bell (Crenshaw), Howard Duff (Robert “Soldier” Becker), Edmond O’Brien (Inmate), Charles McGraw (Andy)

- “Nobody escapes. Nobody ever really escapes…”

This 1947 release from master director Jules Dassin may be the most aptly titled film in the entire countdown. It is a rough, brutal film that really never offers any hope of redemption. The prisoners that inhabit Westgate Penitentiary daydream about past lives and long for the day when they can resume the careers and women that they left behind, but even the romanticized memories never seem realistic. Everyone knows – even if they refuse to openly admit it – that for most of them, exiting the prison is never going to happen. How do people live under such strain? And when such desperate men are provoked, how far will they go to try and break free? Richard Brooks’ script explores these questions as well as any prison drama of the era. It is also interesting to note that Brute Force proves that Dassin did not begin adding large doses of despair to his films only after being chased to Europe by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Night and the City, made while avoiding subpoenas in Hollywood, may very well be his most hopeless film, but Brute Force is not much more encouraging. In different ways, both films explore the lengths to which desperate men will go.

Save for the reminiscences of inmates, all of the action takes place within the walls of Westgate Penitentiary, a prison that is ruled with an iron fist by the sadistic prison guard Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn). The warden is a weak man, powerless to do anything to maintain order in the prison, and so he relinquishes all control to Munsey. The result is that prisoners are beaten and tortured into submission. When a group of roomies in cell R17 become fed up, they begin to put together an elaborate escape plan. Their leader, tough, charismatic Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), instigates the plan when he learns that his ailing wife Ruth (Ann Blythe) will not go forward with a necessary operation unless he is there by her side. So Joe begins planning an escape that will involve a number of accessories, both willing conspirators – Gallagher (Charles Bickford), the respected head of the prison newspaper – and unwitting – Dr. Walters (Art Smith), the prison physician. As things progress, Capt. Munsey begins to get an inkling about what is happening and is determined to foil the plans before they unfold. It then becomes a race to see if Joe and his compatriots can pull it off before Munsey is able to torture or coerce the whole plan out of other inmates.

As anyone who has followed this countdown will now know, I’m a big Jules Dassin fan. This is his third film to appear in the countdown, and as a teaser for future entries, this will not be the last time that he is heard from. The Dassin films that receive the most praise, though, are the ones that come _after_ this masterpiece. Brute Force seems to get lost in the shuffle of the great films he made over the next decade or so, which is a shame because there are times when I think that it might be my favorite film that he ever directed. This is filmmaking of the highest order, with Dassin in absolute control of everything. Rather than single out individual scenes, it is more like entire passages of this film never fail to impress me. As I said, the bleakness of everything is always lurking, but Dassin also manages to create more lighthearted moments in such a harsh setting. Some of the finest moments in the film are when prisoners in the crowded cell R17 are staring at the pinup girl on the wall and recounting the women they romanced on the outside. The key cellmates all begin to reminisce about the circumstances that led to their arrests and imprisonment, with the flashbacks done in a very dream-like, romanticized way. It is like each person is admitting that they probably did do something wrong, but don’t want to come out and admit that their crimes warranted being put where they are.

Those endearing moments, though, are not enough to make anyone ever forget about the brutality that saturates every inch of the prison. The action sequences are flat-out hard, with many memorable scenes. How can one ever forget the vigilante justice doled out by the prisoners on the stool pigeon? It is an assassination scene that outshines any I can think of in the entire era. Or, even more unforgettable, is the methodical way that Capt. Munsey goes about mercilessly beating prisoners. He remains completely stone-faced through it all. Dassin and cinematographer William Daniels use a lot lighting from below, which creates otherwordly shadows that give an even greater uneasiness to things unfolding in the prison.

Hume Cronyn and Burt Lancaster give great dueling performances as their two characters go toe-to-toe. It is interesting to see Cronyn cast as such a vicious character, as he seems much more ideal for the sly, conniving shyster type, such as in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Lancaster is well-established as one of the greatest stars in all of noir, and while his Joe Collins might not quite reach the level of his roles in other classics like The Killers and Criss Cross, it is still of his usual high quality.

I won’t make my usual “underrated” assessment, because most people I have seen discussing it regard it as a very good film. But I do think that it pushes close to the best movie that Jules Dassin ever made.


  1. Great post, Dave! A nasty prison drama. Hume Cronyn, who I always imagined as a meek sort of fellow,is unbelievably brutal in his role, as you state. Dassin was on one hell of a roll during this period with a series of excellent film noirs.

  2. You know, I felt somewhat cheated by this movie, because I kinda hoped for a happy ending, at least for some characters. But, putting this aside, this is indeed one of the most powerful noirs ever made. Hume Cronyn is amazing, and I love Burt Lancaster in anything he did in the 1940s and 1950s.

  3. "This 1947 release from master director Jules Dassin may be the most aptly titled film in the entire countdown. It is a rough, brutal film that really never offers any hope of redemption."

    Aye, Dave, splendidly posed there. Well, I agree with you, John and Quirky Character that this is a very great film, and like you I am a huge fan of Dassin's work. (BTW I think I know exactly what other Dassin film will be heard from in these parts, but my lips are sealed!) The already named NIGHT AND THE CITY is my favorite of his films, and one that strongly qualifies for my #1 spot, but it matters not when you're speaking of a number of his other films, including this brilliant film, which as you note features bravura turns for Lancaster and Cronyn, and a masterful use of light by accomplished cinematographer William Daniels. And the great Miklos Rozsa's score is also memorable.

    This is a titanic essay.

  4. Night and the City is my favorite Dassin film and like Sam it comes close to the #1 spot for me. Brute Force would definitely be my second choice by this great director. When you listed Night and the City earlier I wrote how it seemed that the bleakness of that picture correlated with Dassin's impending blacklisting. You make a good point in stating that this movie is just as oppressive and dark. Burt Lancaster who I never seem to associate with film noir the way I do with Mitchum, Bogart, Ryan, Garfield, Hayden, and Widmark is just as great and iconic. He was involved in no less than 4 absolute classics (the first mentioned here). I suspect my first exposure to him as Moonlight Graham when I was a kid might cloud my judgement lol......M.Roca

  5. Dave, I like both Night and the City and Thieves' Highway better than this, but Brute Force is still a strong choice, definitely stolen by Hume Cronyn playing an authoritarian sadist in unlikely form. It's definitely as oppressive a film as the era produced, so maybe my placing it below those other Dassins only shows that I'm not so tough.

  6. John - Yes, Dassin had an incredible run... and while he certainly continued his greatness when forced out of the US, one wonders what you would have done if he had stayed in Hollywood.

    Quirky Character - Cheated by the ending? I think it's one of the most memorable endings of all time.

    Sam - Haha... I won't reveal the titles of any future Dassin entries! Thank you very much for the compliments on this essay. It was one that I felt good about after writing it (which, as you know, does not necessarily happen every time).

    M.Roca - Moonlight Graham was my probably my first exposure to Lancaster too! LOL... He's now come to be one of my favorite actors and you are certainly correct that he starred in at least four absolute masterworks of noir.

    Samuel - I think a case can be made for almost any Dassin of this era as being his best. The other two are certainly worthy of that title. I agree about Cronyn, it's an incredible performance. The more Dassin that I watch the great my appreciation of his work.

  7. Well, I am a sap for happy endings. Not everywhere and every time, of course, but here I was really hoping for one. It doesn't mean I consider it bad, just disappointing to me, considering my expectations. But, as the tagline (the doctor in the movie) says, "Nobody escapes. Nobody ever really escapes"... I kinda had a bad premonition, but didn't want to listen to it...

  8. Dave -- Another great post! I am totally hooked on this countdown. One thing worth mentioning -- this film came out in 1947, three years after "No Exit" by Jean-Paul Sartre and the same year as "The Plague" by Albert Camus. "Brute Force" may or may not be Dassin's greatest film (my money is on "Night And The City", especially considering the circumstances under which it was made), but I would assert that its the highest expression of existenialist post-war cinematic despair. That ending! Could Camus and Sartre TOGETHER, high on absinthe and having smoked a carton of Gauloises Brunes, come up with something

  9. Rich - Great response! The time of of the works from Sartre and Camus were dates that I was aware of, but never really put them together in my mind with the timing of this release. Very informative!

  10. The film opens on a dark, rainy morning at Westgate Prison. Prisoners crammed into a small cell watch through the window as Joe Collins leaves his term in solitary confinement, after that they're planning how to scape from the cell, that's the hard part of the story and how the events are developed.m10m