Brute Force: Criterion Collection Review

At Westgate Penitentiary, the chief guard Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) rules the inmates with brutality and intimidation. Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is chief of the prisoners in cell R17, and it is only dreams of escape that keep him going.

Although the director is Jules Dassin, there’s a sense that the real driver behind Brute Force is producer Mark Hellinger. Hellinger was a well-known New York newspaper columnist who had been employed by Warners as a consultant to ensure authenticity for their gangster films. Hellinger moved on to become an independent producer, which was a rare thing in 40s Hollywood. Brute Force was the middle of a series of three film noirs, or noir crossovers, that he made for Universal in the late 1940s, before his untimely death from a heart attack at the end of 1947. It followed 1946’s The Killers, directed by Robert Siodmak, and was followed by The Naked City, also directed by Dassin. As Naked City would bring in elements of the police procedural and documentary to the noir format, so Brute Force would do with the prison picture.

The opening shot is classic noir: a close-up of the penitentiary gate in driving rain. There are flashbacks showing us how some of the prisoners came to be in jail – and it’s often down to the women in their lives. These prisoners are not bad men – real scum are elsewhere. The black and white photography is the work of William Daniels, whom Hellinger had tempted out of semi-retirement to shoot this film. Daniels, who had been more associated with studio artifice – he had been Greta Garbo’s favourite DP – adapted to a more realistic aesthetic and went on to do so again with The Naked City. Daniels is not often reckoned as an archetypal noir cameraman – unlike John Alton and Nicholas Musuraca, say – but with his work on the two Hellinger/Dassin films he’s certainly up there with them. The screenplay is by Richard Brooks, from a story by Robert Patterson. Brooks stayed two weeks in a real prison in the interests of research: he would go on to become a notable director himself. His script has many sharp lines, though it has its unsubtle moments of social comment. As for Dassin, he’s on top form here, keeping up a strong pace and using framing and focus to visualise the characters’ interrelationships and the story’s themes – though sometimes less subtly than others. (Look at the way he frames the doctor’s final speech for an example of the latter.)

Burt Lancaster, under contract to Hellinger at the time, had made his debut in The Killers at the age of thirty-three. Promoted to leading-man status, he holds the film together. It’s important that Dassin and Hellinger cast such a handsome, athletic and charismatic actor, as we might not have much sympathy for him and the other prisoners. There is a very strong supporting cast, notably Charles Bickford as an older prisoner, Gallagher. Fifty-six by this time, he hadn’t worked out as a leading man in the 1930s, but had become an Oscar-nominated character actor. He has considerable presence as a man who has clearly lived a life, as Bickford had himself – tried and acquitted for attempted murder at age nine (he’d shot a driver who had run over his dog) and was mauled by a lion on the set of the 1935 film East of Java. Also note the presence of Sir Lancelot, a Trinidadian actor best known for his roles in Val Lewton horror movies, earlier in the decade. His role here, as a prisoner nicknamed “Calypso”, is very similar to his in I Walked With a Zombie, amounting to a musical chorus, commenting on the action. The actual music score is the work of Miklos Rozsa and it’s very effective.

But the standout performance here is that of Hume Cronyn as the sadistic Captain Munsey. Cronyn wasn’t a big man – 5’6” compared to Lancaster and Bickford who were both 6’1” – and that’s a masterstroke of casting. Cronyn, a very distinguished stage actor (where he had first worked with Dassin), often played nebbishy characters, which makes this role that much less precedented. Allusions to Nazism and fascism are overt and intended – and would be picked up by audiences who had recently fought a war against such ideologies. Munsey gets what he wants though silky insinuation – homoerotic overtones that somehow got past the Production Code Administration. And when that doesn’t achieve the same effect, Munsey is not above beating prisoners with a rubber hose. As Doctor Walters (Art Smith), in many ways the film’s conscience, asks, “Where else [than in prison] would you find so many helpless flies to stick pins into?” However, this was lost on the Academy, who failed to nominate him for an Oscar for this film.

For its time, Brute Force is a very violent film, and its not surprising that Joe Breen of the PCA had problems with its content, not least a scene where an informer prisoner is killed by a steam hammer. A scene like this is not what you’d expect to see in the 40s – it’s discreet but gruesome enough in its implications to be worthy of the early 30s horror films which had done much to bring on the Production Code in the first place. (It’s even less surprising to see that the BBFC in 1947, the only time this film was submitted to them, ordered cuts. I don’t know how extensive those cuts were but I’d expect they were heavy.)

Brute Force is less innovative in form than its follow-up, The Naked City, and for that reason seems a little less dated in that it hasn’t been copied so much. The noir style is present and correct and is one that – with the addition of colour notwithstanding – is still resonant today.

Brute Force is number 383 in the Criterion Collection. This single-disc release is encoded for Region 1 only.

Given the realistic aim and content (not to mention a lower budget), black and white was the obvious choice at the time for Brute Force. Shot in Academy Ratio, the film is transferred in 4:3. As is Criterion’s usual practice with such films, the picture is “windowboxed” with thin black bars on all sides. As for the transfer itself, it’s fine: blacks are black, whites not blown out and there are a myriad shades of grey in between. Grain is present but pleasingly film-like. There’s no doubt that this is a film that has been well looked after – there are much younger films in far worse a state – but Criterion have done their usual excellent job here.

The soundtrack is mono, as you would expect of a film of this era and no complaints from me. Played via the centre channel only, dialogue, music and sound effects are well balanced – something you could also expect from Hollywood technical expertise. Hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the feature, but not for the commentary or extras.

The main extra is a commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini, authors of The Film Noir Reader and The Noir Style. This is a typically informative talk from two men clearly steeped in the films of the 1940s, especially film noir. They pack a lot into their hour and a half, describing the film’s place in the film noir canon, and in the careers of its makers and stars. Very good indeed.

There are fewer extras on this disc than on Criterion’s companion release of The Naked City. Jules Dassin is still alive (aged ninety-five) as I write this, but he isn’t represented at all. (He only appears in film of a 2004 interview on Naked City.) Instead we get Paul Mason, an academic at the University of Cardiff and author of Captured by the Media: Prison Discourse in Popular Culture. He discusses the prison-film genre and Brute Force’s place in it, particularly as it deals with issues of prison reform. (Mason is a founding member of the group No More Prisons, so his affiliation on this issue is clear.) The interview runs 15:54 and is in 16:9 anamorphic, with extracts from Brute Force pillarboxed into 4:3.

The theatrical trailer (running 2:14) is a melodramatic effort that points up how good Criterion’s transfer is – the trailer is washed-out with flat contrast and a hissy soundtrack. The extras are rounded out with a gallery of stills, behind-the-scenes shots and posters.

As usual, Criterion have provided a booklet containing film and DVD credits, transfer notes and a chapter list. Also included within its 36 pages are: “Screws and Proles”, a new essay on the film by Michael Atkinson and “The Softest Touch in Hollywood”, by Peter Martin, a 1947 profile of Mark Hellinger from the Saturday Evening Post. Also included is some correspondence between Hellinger and Joe Breen about changes that would have to be made to the script to enable the film to be passed with a Seal of Approval. This makes fascinating reading as you can see the two men begin to fall out. Further correspondence is lacking, but a note indicates that a Universal executive calmed the situation down. Clearly something must have happened, as it’s remarkable what the PCA did allow in this film, including the taboo subject of “policemen, guards etc. dying at the hands of criminals”.

Brute Force is a very worthwhile addition to Criterion’s catalogue, though it’s lighter on extras than some of them. Jules Dassin is one of their favoured directors of the classic Hollywood era and later, and although I’d suggest that this is as much a producer’s piece and a team effort rather than an auteurist work, you can see why.

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