With a title like Brute Force you expect action: nasty, brutish and short. With Jules Dassin at the helm you know you’re in for seasoned noir nihilism. In Brute Force’s terse 90 minutes, the genius behind Naked City, Night and the City, Thieves’ Highway and Rififi delivers the goods. Burt Lancaster stars as Joe Collins, the de facto leader of the guys in cell R17. We first meet Collins fresh from a stint in solitary. When his loyal cellmates discover Collins suffered from a frame-up by a fellow inmate, they deliver payback with blow-torches and a steam-hammer. Dassin maintains a steady, if not always gripping pace, keeping true to the film’s title by peppering it with mean-spirited violence. The truly explosive ending proved Dassin could pull off a complex action sequence with ease. He transforms a formulaic potboiler into a startling meditation on the futility of survival in a world corrupted by power.
Several crude characterizations create a distractingly campy element. There’s the moralizing drunk of a prison doctor or Calypso, the singing Greek Chorus played by real-life Trinidadian calypso artist Sir Lancelot. Burt Lancaster’s the official lead but it’s the supporting cast—A Who’s Who of cool obscure B-movie character actors—who steal the show.
Dassin’s masterful use of high contrast black and white cinematography and powerful framing generate an atmosphere of squalor. Dassin nails down the soul-sucking oppression of incarceration: a guard’s raised arm creates a disruptive border through a sea of inmates; imposing shots of walls, bars, gun turrets and bridges punctuate the narrative and the pounding rain in which the film opens (it rains in prison like it rains in a convicted man’s heart).
So one can’t help wondering what prison in 1947 was really like. Surely it was no cakewalk, yet as grungy and low-life as the inmates might seem, they’re stand-up guys who stick their neck out for a buddy. In classic prison movie fashion, the enemy isn’t incarceration, it’s the man. This prison, with its affably benign, yet ultimately ineffective warden, is a well-oiled microcosm of an orderly society, replete with its own newspaper and auto-repair shop. It’s just a bit too ordered, run by the prison’s Gestapo-like guards and the sadistic Captain Munsey, played not as a savage brute but as a sinister effete by Hume Cronyn.
Despite the threat of torture from Munsey, realized in one particularly homoerotic S & M scene, the cons’ life doesn’t come off as all that hard. Sure there’s solitary confinement and work in the drain pipe if you don’t behave, but for the most part they work away their days like normal citizens.
How about that for a pessimistic metaphor for modern society? Brute Force presents the classic existential dilemma of existing as the captive of another man. Freedom is only a concept and the prisoner’s essence as men is determined by their struggle to escape from the walls of confinement. Abstract this set-up a couple notches and you get Jacques Becker’s Le Trou. A few more notches higher and you arrive at the pinnacle: Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped.
David Wilentz dreams in color.