Brute Force (1947) Jules Dassin
Arrow Blu-ray (UK)
(Also available as a Criterion Collection DVD)
The plot of Jules Dassin’s Brute Force is about as simple as it gets: Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster, above right) and a group of his fellow prisoners seek to escape from Westgate Prison, and especially from the sadistic head of security Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn, above left), who uses inmates as stool pigeons, enabling him to have eyes everywhere. Although a very effective prison story, Dassin swims in the noir pool by engaging us with flashbacks from several of the characters, showing us not only how they wound up in prison, but also the women they long to return to. And of course there’s revenge, deceit, a chance for redemption… all the things that make film noir film noir.
Munsey knows about those women from reading the inmates’ mail. He also knows how to manipulate and toy with these men’s emotions and sanity. The scene in which Munsey brings one inmate’s (Whit Bissell – there he is again, below middle) world crashing down shows the depths of Munsey’s sadism.
The planning and execution of the escape is expertly handled and stands as something of a precursor to Dassin’s excellent heist film Rififi, which came about a decade later. After more than half a century of prison pictures, the suspense, tension, drama and violence of Brute Force may seem dated, but not by much.
Lancaster is superb as the quietly boiling prisoner who dreams of escape and bringing down Munsey, but not necessarily in that order. The supporting cast is excellent, including Charles Bickford, Yvonne De Carlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines, Jeff Corey, John Hoyt and more. Brute Force makes a great double feature with another prison film (also in the Criterion Collection), Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954).