Director: Jules Dassin
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The 1940s were an interesting time for motion pictures. The first half of the decade was given over to patriotic fare and escapist entertainment to aid the morale of a nation embroiled in World War II. In the aftermath of the war, as revelations of the depth of the horror in Europe and the Far East came home with the battle-scarred men, the movies took a turn to the dark side. Proto-noir films like Detour presaged the coming paranoia of the 1950s, and films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Gentleman’s Agreement were frank about postwar realities like housing shortages, scarce jobs, a growing awareness of bigotry, and veterans broken in body, mind, and spirit. Brute Force teamed Jules Dassin, a master of crime films, and Richard Brooks, a screenwriter whose uncompromising gaze filled theatres with such forceful fare as Key Largo, Blackboard Jungle, and Elmer Gantry, for a look at postwar crime and punishment. While adhering to the Production Code dictum that crime must not pay, Brooks and Dassin took a sharp detour from the early 1940s notion of clearly defined good and evil and punished both the convicted criminals and their lawless jailors, reflecting the shadow of the concentration camp on American psyches.
Brute Force centers its action on the convicts of cell R17 in Westgate Penitentiary, which is headed by career bureaucrat Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) but run by a cop named Munsey (Hume Cronyn), whose slight body and soft-spoken manner belie his ruthlessness and ambition. When we first enter the cellblock, inmates are looking out their barred windows at a long car and saying their good-byes to one of the inmates. His stretch is up all right, but only because a hole 6 feet deep is waiting for him on the outside. Munsey had the older convict work in the dreaded drain pipe, where many convicts find illness and death.
As the car pulls away, a couple of guards escort an inmate who was absent from roll call that morning, Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), back to R17. He has spent 10 days in the hole for carrying a shiv. The prison grapevine has fingered Wilson (James O’Rear) as the source of the planted weapon, and preparations are underway to see that he gets his. Despite Wilson’s petition for leniency to inmate power broker Gallagher (Charles Bickford), the instruction “Wilson, 10:30” gets passed around. Collins manages to be in Dr. Walters’ (Art Smith) office when Wilson is cornered in the prison license-plate shop by cons with blow torches and forced into the punch press in a scene of desperate brutality. Wilson is only one of the inmates whose death can be traced back to Munsey, who ordered him to plant the shiv on Collins. The captain has forced dozens of inmates to bend to his will, or take the consequences. One of the occupants of R17 will become his next victim, the warden will bend to a new get-tough policy handed down from on high or lose his job, and cancelled parole hearings prompt Collins, his cellmates, and even the compromise-oriented Gallagher to hatch an escape plan.
Brute Force has an interesting, if occasionally stylistically jarring device for taking us inside the lives of some of the cellmates. We flash back with them to the women they left on the outside and learn a little about their crimes. Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) feared his beautiful wife Cora (Ella Raines) would leave him because he was barely scraping by as a lowly accountant. By juggling the books, he was able to embezzle enough money to buy her the fur coat she’d always wanted, but police sirens interrupted their happy moment. Collins is worried about his wife Ruth (Anne Blyth), who he learns from his lawyer is not getting a cancer operation because she won’t act without him at her side. Collins’ flashback shows him stopping to see Ruth, a paraplegic, before pulling that “one last job” that does all crooks in in the movies. The most entertaining flashback is provided by Spencer (John Hoyt), a con artist who got conned by a beautiful blonde named Flossie (Anita Colby) in a Runyon-esque short story of pithy grace. Soldier (Howard Duff, in his impressive screen debut) just wants to get back to Italy, where he hopes his girl Gina (Yvonne de Carlo) is waiting for him—sadly, his flashback shows Gina shooting her own father to protect Soldier, and she is probably in jail herself.
It is in the prison where this film is most compelling. The grind of a convict’s daily life is shown in a bleak fullness that seems real. The prison is severely overcrowded, with six or seven men in a cell. The food served up in the mess hall looks fit to hang wallpaper, not eat. The oppressiveness of the surroundings is beautifully captured in the art direction of John DeCuir and Bernard Herzbrun: the barbed wire, the guns, the medieval drawbridge to the outside that only lets men out when they’ve finished their sentence, died, or are going to work in the drain pipe. While it doesn’t match the cruel conditions of Caspar Wrede’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, that film was made in the harsh winter of northern Norway. For a set-bound Hollywood production, Brute Force does a very good job.
Dassin puts the pedal to the metal when Munsey goes about uncovering Collins’ plan. He scores a rubber-hose beating of one of Gallagher’s men with the uber-mensch strains of Wagner, a decided contrast with the tasteful undertones of film scorer Miklos Rozsa. Cronyn conducts this beating shirtless, revealing some toned muscle on his formerly unimposing form and visually suggesting the physical ideal of the Third Reich. It’s a bit over the top for a scene that would have been just as effective by focusing on the stiff rubber hose and the steadily more battered face of Munsey’s victim, but cutaways to the cringing guards outside of Munsey’s office create a nice indirect source of unease.
Lancaster, in only his second screen role, capably ushers in the new breed of physical, downscale leading men to come. Character actor Jack Overman plays a punch-drunk boxer in R17 so poignantly that he made me want to see more of him. Bickford doesn’t have a lot to do, but he’s authoritative doing it. Art Smith has the philosopher’s role in this film, and he plays it to the hilt. A drunk who has reached the end of the line working at the prison (did the prison drive him to drink or did drink limit his options to prison work?) he sees through Munsey’s plan to become warden and mocks his ambitions. He doesn’t wonder, as another character does, why men try prison breaks even though they are doomed to failure. The conditions under which the prisoners live say it all, and the film refers to real prison breaks that had been tried at San Quentin and other U.S. facilities. Interestingly, virtually all of the prisoners are Irish; the only other ethnic type called out in the script is a Caribbean inmate nicknamed Calypso (Sir Lancelot), whose off-the-cuff songs describe actions in the story. Prisons would never be this white again.
The climax of the film, of course, is the prison break attempt. It’s action-packed, thrilling, and very, very cruel. A mob of cons in the prison yard swarm guards and await their chance. It never comes, but the vision of a restless population of men must have shook postwar America by the nape of the neck. Dassin’s politics, evident in this film, proved sadly prophetic. The repression that came in the following decade forced him to flee the United States to escape the Hollywood blacklist so he could keep turning out great films like Brute Force.