DIRECTED BY

Jules Dassin

 

STARRING

Burt Lancaster
Hume Cronyn
Charles Bickford

Yvonne De Carlo

Ella Raines

Anita Colby

Ann Blyth

 

RATED

G

 

RELEASED IN

1947

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 38 Mins.

Brute Force June 5, 2020  

rute Force is a prison drama with a disturbingly (but pitch-perfectly) bleak ending. In the movie, Burt Lancaster, in his first of three movies released in 1947, is Joe, an inmate at Westgate Prison finishing a long stint in solitary confinement as the film opens. It’s suggested that Joe had already been talking about a potential escape before; but now more than ever, talk has to be more urgent. The experience

Charles Bickford and Burt Lancaster in 1947's "Brute Force."

B

has shattered him. (Plus, he learns that his flame at home, portrayed by Ann Blyth, is on the brink of a medical crisis.) In the course of the film, Joe will convince both his cellmates in R17 and a select few others to blueprint and then pull off a jailbreak.

 

In between this planning, the movie, written with a “realistic” bent that sometimes has pulp seasoning by Richard Brooks, etches subplots using the backstories of R17’s cellmates. All the men were brought here in part because of unhealthy relationships with women. The women in all cases are datedly presented to us as quasi-to-full-on femme fatale types who single-handedly brought these men down either through emotional manipulation or a clever kind of seduction. (Or a little bit of both.) These thinly drawn characters are played by Ella Raines, Yvonne De Carlo, Blyth, and Anita Colby; none of the actresses can do much to transcend these confining roles. More secondary drama is brought on by the wicked scheming of Machiavellian guard Capt. Munsey (portrayed with lip-licking evil by Hume Cronyn), and by the discord between Westgate’s warden and his higher-ups. (The former wants fairer conditions, but the latter are nagging him about upping brutal security tactics.) 

 

Brute Force is at its best at its weariest — which is to say when disgust at the prison-industrial complex is at its barest (particularly exemplified by the warden subplot). It's an invigoratingly hardened movie — clearly disillusioned with the inhumanity at the complex's center. When the inevitable jailbreak begins toward the end of the feature, we see not a vision of perfect execution à la director Jules Dassin’s legendary bank-heist movie Rififi, which came out eight years later. Instead we bear witness to terrifying chaos. The prison's physical 

barbarism, which has been most prominently seen so far in spurts, is suddenly almost one and the same as its architecture. (The emotional and psychological barbarism, on the other hand, was always there.) The explosion makes especially evident what seems to be the film’s ambivalence toward mass incarceration as an altogether necessary institution. The doomed escape sequence is harrowing; the deadly violence seen should never have taken place, obviously, but Brute Force is the kind of movie that tacitly adds that the violence shouldn't be there in part because something like a penitentiary should not exist to sanction it in the first place. When a survivor of the super-lethal escape-started blowup wearily says, “nobody ever really escapes” (it’s the movie’s last line), we’re struck by the sentiment’s incisiveness, neat summation of the film’s ethos.  

 

Shame about the tangential stories concerning R-17’s women and Munsey, however. The backstories are outwardly supposed to give these men "depth," but really they just help them avoid even a smidgen of accountability or introspection. One has stolen a fur coat for his long-suffering wife; another is a conman who got caught shortly after getting swindled by one of the women. The bottom line is that had it not been for these women, these men would not be in this prison — a strange, sexist, and pretty zealous element in a film that in many other places can be naturalistic and insightful. And though Munsey is fun to hate on account of Cronyn’s performance (it’s the film’s juiciest), the character in general is so overripe that he unwittingly imbues the movie with a partial “if not for one bad egg” sensibility that distorts the movie’s otherwise primarily honed critique of a larger system. All these incongruities do dull Brute Force’s impact some. But its last few moments are so commanding, and so efficiently beetle in its main criticism, I could tell that down the line, it would be Brute Force's progressive cynicism that would stick with me most, not its notes of sensationalism. B+