I’ve now seen Brute Force several times, hoping to be persuaded by the claims others make for it but I remain unconvinced. The story of prison inmates suffering through the sadistic actions of a quasi-Nazi prison official (Hume Cronyn) and attempting an escape which ends in failure is excitingly rendered visually by Jules Dassin and cinematographer William H. Daniels.
It’s got very striking compositions (see below):
Some exciting set-pieces — like the final mow-down in the prison yard, or when inmates force the squealer into the industrial press with blowtorches — that have lost none of their power: (see below):
or tie the second squealer to the cart near the end:
Daniels’ low-key lighting is really beautiful and expressive:
Particularly good at lighting actor’s faces:
I always like seeing scenes of people watching movies, such as here when the inmates watch The Egg and I, with Claudette Colbert and Fred McMurray:
It’s also got an incredible cast of noir stalwarts, not only Lancaster and Charles Bickford but also Yvonne De Carlo, Anne Blyth and Ella Raines:
The film also has the kind of gratuitous and extraneous chest baring I am also partial to:
And one which the film deployed to the marketing the film. The shot below was used in publicity but appears nowhere in the film:
So with all this going for it, why does it fail to convince? In the essay that accompanies the Arrow release, Frank Krutnik notes that the film was based on a botched escape attempt at Alcatraz in May 1946 and that producer Mark Hellinger, ‘enlisted the fiercely liberal novelist Richard Brooks, author of the sensational best-seller The Brick Foxhole (filmed y RKO in 1947 as Crossfire), who had crafted the original screen story for The Killers. Lik Hellinger, Brooks was fascinated by Heminway’s tough, masculine ethos and, as a New York Times reviewer commented, his post-war screen work — Brute Force, Crossfire and Key Largo (1948) — consisted of ‘savage indictments of social wrong. melodramatic and hairy chested, they demonstrated the shock technique of the movie’s current approach to controversy.’ The social wrongs in the film are clearly set up in early scenes in the Warden’s office: overcrowded jails, sadistic wardens who commit more and worse crimes in prison than those that landed the convicts in jail; the conflict over reforming versus punishing inmates; the goal of educating and enlightening versus control by force.
Brooks was praised for his ‘bristling and biting’ dialogue and I do love some of it — ‘I wonder who Flossy’s fleecing now’? — but the rest of his screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. The character of Calypso (Sir Lancelot), though in many ways a respectful representation of a black inmate (the lone one we see) is a ridiculous contrivance, embarrassingly singing every bit of action that he’s part of to a calypso beat. The flashback structures to the women are also very poorly dramatised, the sections in Italy being particularly embarrassing. And this ‘hairy chested’ and ‘tough, masculiine ethos’ also turns out to be very homophobic, not only making of Captain Munsey a Wagner-listening quasi Nazi, but also clearly coding him as homosexual. See the amount of ‘classic’ male nudes, pictures and statues, his prison office is furnished with:
and which help to explain glances like this in the film:
According to Krutnik, the film was regarded as setting a new standard for screen brutality and Life magazine deemed it a ‘picture of almost unrelieved violence and gloom’ and by the ending scene, ‘the screen is drenched with blood and littered with corpses’. Standards for violence have now been raised, or lowered, depending on your point of view. A liberal denunciation of prison conditions, a great vehicle for Burt Lancaster, a huge hit in its day. But at best a mixed bag now, at least for this viewer, and contradictorily, one that nonetheless holds up to repeated viewings.
Burt Lancaster’s Second Film:
Kate Buford write of how the role of Joe Collins in Brute Force was crafted to showcase Burt Lancaster. ‘Variety raved that the producer’s “gamble as a potential star in The Killers is paying off in spades with Brute Force ‘(loc 1412). As you can see below, Lancaster moved beautifully, Billy Daniels, MGM’s great cameraman, famous for lighting Garbo, was tempted back to work and here lights Lancaster to be both beautiful, strong, and his imprisonment branded by the shadows of bars throughout the film.
According to Kate Buford, the scene that made Lancaster’s reputation is the one below:
As she writes, ‘Collins is the prototype of all his tough guy roles to come: strong, utterly focused, body bent, yearning, pushing through space towards the goal. The big powerful man trying to break free is an image beyond words….yet as a post-war parable, the movie is deeply sad. The Nazi-type Munsey is vanquished only to have the heroes who killed him either dead or still in prison’ (loc 1401).
The Arrow Academy edition is lovely to look at with a really interesting film in which Burt Lancaster biographer Kate Buford talks intriguingly of this noir period of Lancaster’s career. I have posted her explication of the great scene where Collins through Munsey into the prison yard and why and how that set the basis of his persona above.