Jules Dassin’s Brute Force is among the most brutal of the films noir, with its iron clash between fascist violence and moral righteousness. The 1947 picture is based on a screenplay by Richard Brooks, which is based on a story by Robert Patterson. Dassin sinks his teeth into post-War America and finds blood in class warfare, where prisoners lock horns with authoritarian guards and long for freedom.
War sits in the backdrop of Brute Force, with clear parallels drawn between the disposable prisoners and the soldiers sent to die at the hands of the enemy. There is kinship among inmates, a roundabout way of speaking, a method to the madness. All the while, the guards watch from above with fluctuating designs on control.
Burt Lancaster stars as inmate Joe Collins. He’s returned to his cell after a stint in solitary confinement and he’s mad as hell. The warden (Roman Bohnen) is under pressure from authorities because he’s apparently too permissive. Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) smells a promotion and destabilizes the prison population with a variety of schemes.
Joe, whose wife (Ann Blyth) is cancer-stricken, works with an powerful inmate named Gallagher (Charles Bickford) to work on an escape plan. He assembles some of his fellow prisoners to help overtake a guard tower, but Munsey is working a game of his own. He not only drives a prisoner to suicide, he ruthlessly beats another to get information. Only the doctor (Art Smith) stands against Munsey’s tyranny.
Brute Force begins with perhaps the most authentically noir set of credits in existence. Rain castigates the brick walls of Westgate Prison and darkness spreads as far as the eye can see. William Daniels’ cinematography sweeps across the site, showing the prison’s guard towers in their phallic splendour and showcasing the mammoth front gate. It’s a heaving, hazardous place.
Once inside, the picture becomes more intimate and more terrifying. The prisoners huddle in their cells, in the chapel, in corners. They work things out. They talk about their lives and their plans after they escape. Calypso (Sir Lancelot) provides a dim sort of music, while guards like Hodges (Jay C. Flippen) roam through the margins waving big sticks.
The guards, clad in long dark coats, suggest a fundamental fascism to the prison system. And the humanist Dr. Walters knows that the jail is a human bomb, a place where there’s no future and no hope. With the annulment of privileges and the steady erosion of human rights, the men are treated like animals. It isn’t too long before they become animals.
Munsey seeks power. Dr. Walters considers him like Caesar and the shoe fits, with the Captain’s rule by might driving him to the post he wants. The physician warns that force without patience or understanding will lead to ruin, but Munsey responds with violence. In the movie’s ferocious climax, he reaches the top of the pyramid – in a manner of speaking.
Brute Force is very much a creature of noir in its examination of an unjust world. The prison system is less a place where criminal justice is doled out and more a drainpipe of the social order, where power-hungry men subjugate the lower class. Dassin is justifiably angry and that gives his picture certain endurance as a moral statement.
Despite drawing some rather bold lines in post-War language, Dassin’s movie has shades of grey. While Lancaster’s square-jawed presence as the working class hero stands tall, even he slips into the violence and vengeance currency of the prison system. The men collaborate to eliminate a hapless stool pigeon, regardless of his cries for mercy.
Life is a warzone in Dassin’s Brute Force and there’s always steady rain. Dassin’s picture powerfully explores the roles of fate and corruption, maintaining that the enemy of regular people is the unjust system that surrounds them. Regardless of the basic virtue of the protagonists, the bell tolls and the machine gun fires hot lead over the crowd. And there is no shelter here.