BRUTE FORCE B+
USA (98 mi) 1947 d: Jules Dassin
Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you’ve served your time, or when you’re dead!
—Gallagher (Charles Bickford)
—Gallagher (Charles Bickford)
The Macbeth of prison break films, as there’s no happy ending to soothe the audience’s built-up anxieties, instead there is only a film noir world of death and destruction. Ostensibly a leftist, postwar reaction to fascism, Dassin’s film elevated the American prison picture to the role of a WW II POW film, where the sadistic chief prison guard is equated to the Nazi SS officers running the concentration camps. The timing of the film is interesting, as it was released in the summer just prior to the first Hollywood blacklist instituted on November 25, 1947, the day after ten writers and directors were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dassin rose to Hollywood prominence in the late 1940’s with a series of taut and moody pulp films, including BRUTE FORCE (1947), THE NAKED CITY (1948), and THIEVES HIGHWAY (1949), each distinguished by an inventive camera style and shadowy imagery capturing a bleak, sometimes sadistic vision of human nature. Shortly after completing NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950), his career in America was finished when fellow movie director Edward Dmytryk testified before a congressional committee in 1951 that Mr. Dassin was a communist sympathizer, forcing him into self-imposed exile in Europe. One of eight children of Russian-Jewish immigrants, his family moved to New York City when Dassin was a small child, eventually settling in Harlem. According to Dassin, “We were so poor it was ridiculous. At that time Harlem wasn’t entirely black. There were about three or four minority groups living in the ghetto, at each other’s throats all the time: Jewish, Negro, Irish, and some Italian, divided among themselves and taking out their wrath and their poverty upon each other. I was conscious of this, and of the daily problem of eating. And it was cold...it was always so cold.” Left-wing artistic circles abounded in New York during the Depression, where he worked in New York’s legendary Yiddish Theatre, which was founded on Brecht along with the principles of agitprop theater based on the Soviet model, working with Elia Kazan, among others, on a 1937 WPA Federal Theater Production of Revolt of the Beavers, playing the lead in a Marxist musical for children that was terminated after only three weeks by the New York police commissioner. For five summers during this period Dassin worked as an entertainment director of a Jewish camp in the Catskills, where, among other things, he engaged the young campers in productions of Shakespeare. At this time he was briefly a member of the Communist party, heavily influenced by the revolutionary realism of Lee Strasberg’s Group Theatre (1931- 1940), the first acting company to introduce Stanislavski acting principles, but left the party in 1939 when Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet pact with Hitler. From Alastair Phillips, Rififi, 2009, pages 5-11:
The cultural milieu in which Dassin thrived during this period provided a formative influence on his later political and cultural sensibilities. It was during this time that he was exposed to New York’s vital left-wing theatre then flourishing in the progressive climate of the New Deal. Dassin would later claim, for example, that he joined the Communist Party after seeing the Group Theatre production of Clifford Odets’s episodic drama, Waiting for Lefty, set among a community of taxi drivers on the verge of a strike during the Great Depression of the 1920’s. Like Orson Welles, Dassin also worked in radio and it was his audio adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat that led to him being noticed by the Broadway producer, Martin Gabel, who subsequently invited him to direct The Medicine Show by Oscar Saul and H. R. Hays at the New Yorker Theater. This, in turn, led to an invitation to work in Hollywood.
Two of the actors from the Group Theater joined Dassin in this film, Roman Bohnen, the befuddled warden, and Art Smith, the alcoholic prison doctor who is really closer to the narrative center of the film, and both would later be blacklisted (two other actors as well, Jeff Corey and Sam Levene), with Bohnen suffering a fatal heart attack afterwards, while Smith was named by Elia Kazan from his work in the Group Theater. Later in his life Dassin forgave plenty of people associated with McCarthyism, but one he never forgave was Elia Kazan. Dassin was included among a group of younger, socially aware, left-wing directors that resorted to the use of film noir to help them explore psychological motives under the surface, including Robert Rossen, who directed Body and Soul (1947), Abraham Polonsky, who directed Force of Evil (1948), and Joseph Losey, who remade M (1951), directors whose work carried some weight and substance, as they had known hardship and struggle in their lives, having lived through extraordinary historical events whose experiences helped define their artistic vision, something Red Hollywood (1996) director Thom Andersen suggests is “characterized by ‘greater psychological and social realism,’ by a skepticism about the American dream, and by pointed reference to the ‘psychological injuries of class.’” After becoming dissatisfied by the conservatism shown by MGM, Dassin signed with Universal Studios after his contract expired, specifically to work for a newly formed production unit under the helm of liberal crime journalist Mark Hellinger, who advocated a greater degree of social realism within the Hollywood crime film, having just produced Robert Siodmak’s Oscar nominated film noir THE KILLERS (1947), a film that introduced Burt Lancaster, an actor with outspoken liberal sympathies. Prison movies were most popular in the 1930’s when dozens of films were made about men serving hard time, coinciding with the hard times experienced by the general public during the Great Depression, including George W. Hill’s THE BIG HOUSE (1930), Mervyn LeRoy’s I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932), Roland Brown’s HELL’S HIGHWAY (1932), Michael Curtiz’s 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932), and a host of others, all about men trying to survive under oppressive circumstances. Other subjects explored by this liberal group of filmmakers were outspoken films that attacked racism, anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, vigilantism, and the misuse of the criminal justice system.
Enter Jules Dassin, with a script written by Richard Brooks, from a story by Robert Patterson, opening with grim, black and white shots of a solitary, cathedral-like Westgate prison compound surrounded by water, like Riker’s Island, where the austerity of the cold stone walls with an armed security tower rising overhead are subject to a constant deluge of rain, the film aches with an unrelenting sense of despair. Instead of dangerous prisoners in their midst, where it’s every man for themselves in a Darwinian world, the real enemy is the tyrannical rule of a notoriously brutal prison system run by a particularly disreputable, yet power hungry chief guard, Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). What’s immediately apparent is the camaraderie of the inmates, seen welcoming a fellow prisoner back from an extended stint in solitary confinement, where Joe Collins, in a dynamic performance by Lancaster, played with a battle hardened, inner-rage, always seething with intensity in a role that made him a star, immediately sets his sights on escape, driven by a single-minded purpose to get “out,” “Nothing’s OK. It never was and it never will be. Not ‘til we’re out, get it? Out!,” as there’s nothing left for them on the inside, no hope, no future, and no life. Seen as a tight-knit group, where the main characters are introduced, Collins gathers them around as soon as he’s returned back to the cell, including Howard Duff as “Soldier” Becker, John Hoyt as Spencer, a gambler, Jack Overman as Kid Coy, a professional boxer, Whit Bissell as Tom Lister, an embezzler, and Jeff Corey as “Freshman,” where they’re all-in with Joe’s plans. But first there’s another matter to take care of, what to do about the squealer that got Collins sent away in the first place. While Collins visits the prison doctor for an alibi, his cellmates menacingly surround the snitch (James O’Rear) in the metal shop, taunting him with blowtorches, forcing him backwards until he falls into a huge metal-stamping machine that instantly crushes him. So much for prison justice. But that’s just for openers. We see that the beleaguered and ineffectual Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) is getting threatened to improve discipline by some political hack (Richard Gaines) whose only interest is protecting the governor from scandal, preferring to avoid problems through the use of strong-armed tactics by Captain Munsey to supposedly keep the inmates in line, whose motto is “Kindness is a weakness.” But the doctor, the only voice of conscious throughout the film, who witnesses first-hand the demoralizing effect this has on inmates, speaks up, “I know in medicine that you don’t cure a sick man by making him sicker. In here, you’re returning a man into the world a worse criminal than he came in.”
Realizing that he’s one bad press release away from assuming control of the prison, Munsey deceptively drives Lister to suicide, hounding him that his wife was erroneously filing for divorce, causing him to hang himself in his cell. It’s sadistically cruel moves like this that drive the men to band together and revolt, suddenly scrounging for things they can use as weapons as they plan an all-out escape. However, there’s a brief flashback sequence that connects several of the men to the women they knew on the outside, creating a series of romantic threads, which may or may not be real, as the men have plenty of time mulling over their fates, but they’re intriguing by the brevity, humor, and great camerawork of these sequences, where Spencer is fleeced at gunpoint by his stylish date, Flossie (Anita Colby), taking him for his money and his swanky new car, while Lister embezzles money from his company to give his wife (Ella Raines) a fur coat. Collins needs money for a lifesaving cancer operation, as otherwise his girl (Ann Blyth), who refuses treatment unless Joe is with her, may spend the rest of her dwindling life in a wheelchair, while “Soldier” fondly recalls the Italian woman he met during the war (Yvonne DeCarlo), smuggling food to her resistance faction, willingly taking the rap after she shoots her own father, as he was about to expose the American to nearby Italian soldiers. While essentially the inner thoughts of the men, they offer a completely different vantage point, as we see each of them prior to their arrests. Another unique twist is the use of one inmate named Calypso (Sir Lancelot), who sings all his lines, like a Greek chorus sung to Caribbean Calypso verse — bizarre. Easily the most surreal moment of the film takes place in Munsey’s office to the music of Wagner, Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture - Thielemann / Münchner ... - YouTube (14:42), a clear connection to Nazi concentration camps, as he brutally tortures a Jewish prisoner (Sam Levene) for information by beating him nearly to death using a rubber hose. Featuring outstanding camerawork by William Daniels, once associated exclusively with Greta Garbo, but his work dates back to Erich von Stroheim, the musical score is by Miklós Rósza, one of the great film noir composers. Adding to the visual landscape is the hellish place of work assigned to this group of prisoners, as underneath the prison compound is a giant sewer system, where like Sisyphus, they endlessly excavate for a mud-drenched drainpipe that supposedly goes from one end of the island to the other, but no one is really sure. As this is their only opening to the outside world, this is their avenue of escape. With Munsey agitating prisoners behind the scenes, using stool pigeons as informers, Collins was supposed to align his forces with those of fellow prisoner Gallagher (Charles Bickford), a man of discretion who only signed on after his upcoming parole was revoked “indefinitely.” It becomes a fatalistic exercise in futility once they learn Munsey has taken over as Warden and is aware of their planned escape route, waiting for them with machine guns pointed straight at them, literally daring them to go. Not to be deterred, Collins refuses to be stopped, as this is their only chance. With blistering results, using another stoolie as a human shield, the ensuing battle scene chaos is remarkable, meant to resemble the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz where a prison riot ran out of control for two days following an unsuccessful escape attempt. Fueled by a hatred for fascism, the Spartacus-like revolt was meant to educate and liberate the masses, where the spectacular gory violence of the finale predates Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) by twenty years, with Peck using slo-mo for even greater emphasis, where William Holden’s Pike Bishop declares, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”