Director Jules Dassin has a number of classic films scattered throughout his filmography, he is certainly someone that you should become familiar with if you’re exploring cinema, but it took me far too long to get to this one, despite having owned it on shiny disc for years.
Brute Force is a bleak and nihilistic look at prison life, showing the battles between the inmates and the guards, the battles between inmates and other inmates, and the battles that men have with their own willpower. Although you get an interesting mix of cast members, the focus is on a prisoner named Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) and Captain Munsey (Hugh Cronyn), the former wanting to escape prison life and the latter wanting to be promoted to the position of warden.
Based on a real-life incident, a futile battle between prisoners and guards at Alcatraz after a failed escape attempt, the screenplay by Richard Brooks has numerous moments of unflinching violence throughout. I am not going to say that this remains as powerful today as it would have been when first released, but it certainly still packs a punch. There are familiar prison movie tropes, but it’s arguably more interesting because of the bleak perspective. Even the presence of Sir Lancelot, a calypso musician given numerous small movie roles at this time, doesn’t lighten the mood.
Lancaster and Cronyn are superb in their roles, portraying the typical unbreakable prisoner and unrelenting prison guard that we have seen in so many other prison movies. Neither are good men, but Cronyn’s character has the power, and the sadism, making him the ultimate enemy of those onscreen. As for the rest of the cast, they’re all excellent, and everyone gets a moment to shine (even if they’re reminiscing about how they ended up doing time because of a woman . . . yeah, all these poor prisoners were just suckers for a pretty lady, apparently). Jack Overman, Jeff Corey, John Hoyt, and Art Smith were favourites of mine, but you also have Yvonne De Carlo, Charles Bickford, Sam Levene, and many others to enjoy.
Dassin does his usual great job as director. The pacing is perfect, the thin line between what is depicted onscreen and what is heavily implied is always judged well (although I am sure that was also helped by knowing what would be permitted by the censors), and the weighty exploration of morality, and the different codes applied to different groups of people, is never allowed to slow down a film which rattles along like an unstoppable locomotive heading towards a “track ends” sign.
Not a film to watch when you want something to cheer you up, Brute Force is nevertheless a classic that easily stands the test of time. It’s smart, it still packs a punch, and the ending is unforgettable.
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