As hard-hitting as its title, Brute Force was the first of Jules Dassins forays into the crime genre, a prison melodrama that takes a critical look at American society as well. Burt Lancaster is the timeworn Joe Collins, who, along with his fellow inmates, lives under the heavy thumb of the sadistic, power-tripping guard Captain Munsey (a riveting Hume Cronyn). Only Collinss dreams of escape keep him going, but how can he possibly bust out of Munseys chains? Matter-of-fact and ferocious, Brute Force builds to an explosive climax that shows that mans desperation for freedom knows no bounds.
Jules Dassin's brooding, brutal drama about a prison wound to the breaking point by a sadistic captain of the guards is a classic film noir as well as one of the greatest prison films ever made. Burt Lancaster (in only his third film but already commanding the screen like a pro) is the savvy prison veteran whose clashes with Hume Cronyn (the ambitious guard with a god complex) land him first in solitary then in the claustrophobic drain pipe, a muddy, airless work detail that slowly kills every man assigned to it. With the help of his cellmate buddies and former gangland boss Charles Bickford he hatches a plan to break out, but Cronyn has his own plans for the unbreakable prisoner. Dassin's oppressive prison is thick with atmosphere: cavernous buildings and halls that echo with the footsteps of inmates and the clanking of bars, overcrowded cells that seem to close in on the men, a busy machine shop where the film's most memorable scene takes place--the ruthless assassination of a stoolie in a pounding metal press. Cinematographer William Daniels, a master of Hollywood's soft-focus glamour, creates a harsh, hard-edged look for the film, softened only by looming shadows. A sense of doom hovers over everything, culminating in an explosive finale, but the barbaric, brutish violence hangs in the air long after the film is over. --Sean Axmaker
On the DVD
Criterion's beautiful restored print of Brute Force is accompanied by a small collection of supporting materials, including a commentary track by longtime film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini. They give a good brief on the film's history, such as the disagreements between producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin on the subject of the movie's use of flashbacks--an approach that would break the claustrophobia of the prison sequences and introduce female characters. Hellinger wanted the backstory, Dassin objected, and the producer won; but the point is definitely arguable. Prison-movie specialist Paul Mason gives a useful 15-minute talk, partly on Brute Force and partly on the genre of prison movies. Criterion's booklet has an excellent essay by critic Michael Atkinson, a vintage 1947 profile of the colorful columnist-turned-producer Hellinger, and an intriguing, bitter exchange of letters between Hellinger and Production Code chief Joseph Breen on the subject of the film's censorship problems. --Robert Horton