It is a nice coincidence that I watched Jules Dassin's BRUTE FORCE today seeing as how yesterday would have been his 100th birthday, had he not died in March 2008.  Who is Jules Dassin you may ask?  Despite having a distinctly European sounding name, he was a talented American born filmmaker who made several very successful crime movies in the US in the 1940s--THE NAKED CITY, BRUTE FORCE, and THIEVES' HIGHWAY (I've yet to see this one)--before he was blacklisted in 1950.  He struggled to find work, and even after he went to Europe he had difficulty getting films made as American distributors threatened to boycott releasing any of his work.  His next film wasn't until 1955's excellent and influential (and French) heist film RIFIFI, said to have inspired modern films such as OCEANS 11.  It also informed his 1964 film TOPKAPI, which, when I caught the last half it on TV recently I noticed must definitely have influenced Brian de Palma in filming the CIA heist sequence in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE when Tom Cruise enters via the ceiling.

Director Jules Dassin
But today I am talking about BRUTE FORCE.  It is a 1947 noir prison film starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn (a Canadian!), as prisoner Collins and guard Captain Munsey, respectively.  As Collins and company prepare to make a prison break, the sadistic and tyrannical Captain Munsey is honing in on the meek Warden A.J. Barnes' job.  The Warden is on unofficial probation for being too lenient on his charges and should another incident occur, the Governor is going to dismiss him.  Munsey sees this as an opportunity, and lies in wait for Collins to execute his plan.

Burt Lancaster as Collins (far right), and his cellmates.
 Prison films are great locales for film noirs as they provide the right atmosphere and circumstances for some of the chief emotional motifs of noir: paranoia, pessimism, claustrophobia, and depravity.  We also have a huge cast of characters to attribute the whole spectrum of human conditions: bravery, cowardice, (dis)loyalty, insanity, brutality, and empathy.  As well as brotherhood; as the saying goes, "honor among thieves."  Despite differences in backgrounds and motives, all the prisoners have a common enemy, The Man, in this case Captain Munsey. 

Hume Cronyn as Capt. Munsey.
 It is also interesting watching an older prison drama.  Prison life has been rather white-washed in two senses, one, in a literal sense, most of the prisoners are white males (contrary to the massive number of African-Americans in prison in actuality), but also, two, this prison seems kind of cleaned up and humane.  Life seems to be relatively liveable with movies screened and plenty of different job details for inmates.  Five or six men crammed into a prison cell seem to be tolerable, and downright friendly with each other.  There are no drugs and hardly any violence between inmates--except the "accidental" death of one informant (a person who betrays his brothers).  So yeah, life seems fairly liveable here--that is until you're summoned to Munsey's office and he draws the blinds.

BRUTE FORCE is a fantastic film, a riveting drama and prison break story that truly culminates in an explosive climax. In a way, it isn't a huge stretch to see why it may have come to the attention of the HUAAC and gotten Dassin blacklisted.  It is the story of one courageous young man, rising up with his oppressed brothers to overthrow the leader for the greater good; where the one sacrifices himself for the many.  But despite your ideological leanings, it is a really well made film, with excellent performances by Lancaster and Cronyn, as well as Charles Bickford as Gallagher, the prison's newspaper editor who has seen it all, and Art Smith as Dr. Walters, as the prison's doctor, and sometimes moral conscience.  Go find this at your local video store or library, Criterion has an excellent DVD of it out!


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