Saturday, 20 March 2010

Brute Force

Jules Dassins' Brute Force is one of the American director's greatest films, beginning a magnificent series of classic film noirs - Brute Force in 1947, The Naked City (1948), Thieves' Highway (1949), Night and the City (1950) through to Rififi in 1955. The story follows 6 prison inmates (led by Burt Lancaster) planning on escaping the iron-fist regime of sadistic prison captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) who has out-maneuvered a weak willed warden and locked down the prison with brutal discipline, terror and fear...

Some 60 years on, Brute Force remains a potent film. Back in the day, it must have seemed monstrously violent - one inmate is blow-torched into a machine presser, while another is bound to a chair and bludgeoned to death. Dassin makes no bones about comparing life in the Big House to a battleground, even staging the explosive climax of the film like a guys-on-a-mission war movie. Even Burt Lancaster's Joe Collins is unflinchingly tough, a man who has run out of freedom, and out of time, as he is forced to breakout to be with his terminally-ill woman. Strong stuff.

Brute Force would be Dassin's first venture into the style of film noir and already some key noir elements are established - moody camera lighting, brooding characters rushing towards certain doom, and intricate flashbacks. I suspect Brute Force's flashbacks, which are positively melodramatic compared to the prison scenes, were intended as some sort of let-up for the audience, for what is a harsh and edgy film. Lancaster, in what would be his second major film after appearing in The Killers the previous year, is excellent as Collins, playing it straight (no Lancaster "grin" here) but best of all is Hume Cronyn, in an inspired choice of unlikely casting, as the fascist prison captain. Arguably this is the first modern prison movie, it refuses to soft-pedal prison-life (like Cool Hand Luke did), and in terms of influence, it casts a long shadow over the prison genre, with echoes of the film appearing in such disparate movies as Alien 3 (the oppressive gloom and cavernous sets) and Natural Born Killers (the chaotic prison riot).

The best way to see Brute Force is of course the Criterion DVD (who have also put out stellar editions of Dassin's films mentioned above). The transfer is the standard Criterion excellence, and there's a very interesting audio commentary by two film noir scholars and authors. Well worth a listen. The film is also available as a R2 DVD courtesy of Arrow, but with a weaker (but watchable) transfer than that of the Criterion.


  1. I love this movie - for all the reasons you mention - and kudos to you for pointing out the unlikely but extremely effective casting of Hume Cronyn. That role in other hands would have gone to someone like Robert Ryan - who would have been fine - but little ol' Hume really makes it something to see.

  2. Yep, I fully agree... Robert Ryan would have been an excellent alternative but it would have given the film's central conflict a different flavour altogether. Hume Cronyn is a knockout and really gets under your skin as a small man behind a big badge...