The Criterion Collection presents
Brute Force (1947)
"These gates only open three times—when you come in, when you've served your time, or when you're dead."- Gallagher (Charles Bickford)
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn
Other Stars: Howard Duff, Ella Raines, Yvonne De Carlo
Director: Jules Dassin
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:38m:13s
Release Date: 2007-04-17
Genre: film noir
DVD ReviewThe durability of the prison picture is undoubtedly one of the unintended consequences of the Hays Code—sure, there are bizarre and graphic pleasures in something like Oz, but now the old-time jailhouse movie is by definition an exercise in nostalgia; see, for instance, The Green Mile. But Brute Force gives us the genuine article, and it's a sweaty, tense tale from inside the big house. Jules Dassin has been getting all kinds of love from Criterion as a noir master these days—most recently with The Naked City—but the director's style may never have been edgier than it is here, which may or may not be a film noir. But you're better off watching than parsing the genre definition, and you'll be glad that you're on the outside looking in.
As just about any good prison movie is, this one is deliberately claustrophobic—but for a few brief flashbacks, all the action takes place inside, revolving around the inmates relegated to Cell R17. A young and angry Burt Lancaster stars as Joe Collins, and as is required in these sorts of stories, he's looking to bust out—Joe is a natural leader of men, and he's got to marshal his forces to contend with Munsey, the sadistic prison guard who basically runs the place. Hume Cronyn gives a creepily memorable performance in the role, a slight man working out the injustices done to him by torturing, both physically and psychologically, those under his command. He's been given the odd gift of a weak and wavering warden, and Munsey is all too happy to fill the gap. The character is totalitarianism in a guard's uniform, and it's kind of an amazing turn, especially if you recall Cronyn only as a sweet old codger in movies like Cocoon, or as Mr. Jessica Tandy.
Richard Brooks' sturdy screenplay verges on the operatic now and again, but it gets the job done, even when it's a bit schematic—the camera dollies in on each principal inmate in turn, for instance, and we get a quick memory flash of each of the women who done them wrong and are responsible in part for these pulls in the stir. (Ella Raines seethes greed and sex as the wife of Whit Bissell—it's her lust for a fur coat that leads him to embezzling from his boss. And a tempestuous young Yvonne De Carlo is the Italian war bride who makes a heap of trouble for Howard Duff.) Brooks doesn't pass up any of the staples, from the old trusty to the rat to prison movie night—the prisoners even make license plates, and they've got a friendly if boozy authority figure in Doc Walters, who knows the truth about Munsey. The cast is a cavalcade of actors whose faces you'll recognize from movies of the period, and among them you can almost feel Lancaster chiseling out his movie star persona—a guy's guy, who's quick to anger and fiercely loyal, a man who has been wounded by women but is always ready to throw down if you look at him funny. And he was a physical presence you wouldn't want to mess with, with the smoothness and danger of a young Marlon Brando—the arch theatricality hadn't yet taken over.
Dassin shows a particular eye for architecture here, and the severe circular stairways, the slats of the prison bars, and the oppressive darkness of even the warden's office speak volumes about the place. And as Collins' crew plans their escape, the atmosphere of the movie gets even more oppressive and sinister, with a climactic sequence of the inmates as a baying and bloodthirsty mob. It's a savage portrait, but a surprisingly compassionate one as well, as if Dassin and his colleagues know that you can push a man too far, and if you do, you shouldn't be surprised by the vicious consequences.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: It doesn't look as crisp as does Criterion's release of The Naked City, but even with a print of less than optimal quality, it's hard to overstate the importance of cinematographer William Daniels to the success of the film. He favors tight, ferocious two shots, reinforcing the power dynamics between guard and prisoner, and between the inmates, and you pretty much don't want to be on the wrong side of any of these guys.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Dialogue occasionally gets a little garbled on this mono track, which is otherwise thin but acceptable.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini
- stills gallery
- accompanying booklet
- color bars
Criminologist Paul Mason (15m:53s) discusses the limits of the genre, and the innovation of this particular film; he's especially interesting discussing prison reform, and the picture that Dassin painted, the director as political crusader. The stills gallery features lots of publicity shots and candids of Dassin with cast members; the accompanying booklet has an appreciation of the film by Michael Atkinson, a 1947 profile of Hellinger from The Saturday Evening Post, and a sample of the correspondence in which Hellinger jousted with Joseph Breen of the Hays Code office over the film's issues conforming with the production code.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsA nasty, cutting prison movie, which invites you to read it metaphorically—but even if the political parable doesn't work for you, it's incredibly entertaining. Criterion continues to ratify director Jules Dassin's status in the noir pantheon. Smoke 'em if you got 'em, friend.
Jon Danziger 2007-04-16