Classic Flix Review: Brute Force (1947)

Welcome all and sundry to another guest review of a film I caught quite by accident. Courtesy of Turner Classic Movies late into a dark and stormy summer night.

The film Brute Force is exceptionally intriguing in more ways than one. With a screenplay by Richard Brooks, who had assisted on Burt Lancaster’s earlier, The Killers, excellent direction by Jules Dassin and B&W camera work by William H. Daniels. Brute Force has the palpable feel, gritty look and fingerprints of a 1940s Warner Brothers gangster/prisoner film, but was made by Paramount! That said, most all of the action takes place inside Westgate Prison. Stoic. Sturdy. Constantly under raining storm clouds. Separated from the city by long and foreboding drawbridge and impenetrable steel doors. Westgate is the place where bad people are sent by their betters on the mainland. Hopefully, never to return. As with any prison picture, Westgate has a constant and overwhelming surplus of prisoners.

Some are there of their own free will and actions. Others there, taking the rap for their wives’ or girlfriends’ greed or desire for a fur coat in tales told in memorable flash back. All vulnerable, with either wives or girlfriends on the outside and a constant source of worry. Adding angst and desperation to what Westgate’s administrators describe as “A Powder Keg.”
The film begins on a typical stormy morning as prisoner Joe Collins is finally released from a stretch in Solitary Confinement. Collins is played by a muscled, lean and lithe Burt Lancaster at his most close to explosive best. It seems that Collins has an axe to grind, not just for those in authority, but also with one of the prison’s many inmates, since Collins’ Solitary rap stemmed from a guard finding a pistol planted in Collins’ bunk.
Collins has had plenty of time to think and stew and also come up with the grain of an idea for an escape. An idea that needs to be dissected and expounded upon by others that Collins trusts. Those being the four other convicts that inhabit his cell and perhaps a few others.
It’s those few others (Jeff Corey, John Hoyt and Edmond O’Brien) have been come under the scrutiny of the warden’s prim and proper, thought ruthlessly, brutally sadistic Captain Munsie. For all of you who remember Hume Cronyn’s frail and forgetful Joe Finley from Cocoon (1985), take a long, solid look at Cronyn is his prime. Absolutely reveling in his expressionless Dr. Perceptron voice from Futurama and supposed moral superiority. He’s a creepy treat to watch!
Such creepiness deserves and requires a worthwhile protagonist and Burt Lancaster more than fills the bill. Laying groundwork that would serve him well in later films, Sweet Smell Of Success and Birdman of Alcatraz. Delivering soliloquies that range from intimidating to flat out scary. All while Burt’s crew start closing in on whoever planted the gun in Burt’s bunk. Cronyn’s Captain Munsie adds to the cat and mouse game by dangling early releases and easier office work in exchange for information regarding prisoner Collins.
It sets the stage for Mr. Lancaster’s brief moment of heartbreaking emotional reality in the form of a visit from his lawyer. It seems that Burt’s wife is suffering from cancer, but won’t have the operation unless he is there. Which does nothing for his friendly disposition, as the timetable for the escape is moved up and the con who planted the pistol is discovered and gotten rid of in the prison’s machine shop’s press. Meanwhile Burt is creating an alibi with a discussion with the prison’s doctor.
Cronyn ratchets thing up a bit by denying privileges, light duty and parole hearings. The prisoners revolt and gather in the prison’s massive bull pen as the first stages of the escape attempt. Guards are jumped and weapons taken. Secondary explosions occur with the aid of home-made Molotov Cocktail fire bombs tossed at the front gate’s imposing steel door. Guards in their towers prep their lever action rifles and water cooled machine guns as massed prisoners move in all directions and gunfire erupts.
The momentum is with the prisoners, however fleetingly, as Burt has a running gun battle up and down one tower’s spiral staircase. The tower with Captain Munsie in its gun emplacement. Burt and Munsie fight as the prison’s steel door remains unmoved and machine guns rake the scattered, smoldering bull pen. To go beyond what I’ve covered would tip the hand and spoil one of the great Men Behind Bars, prison films made.

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

Its blatant, gritty, claustrophobic, no-holds-barred look at prison life from a bygone time. That is only one brutal act, incident or accident away from complete and total meltdown. Run by a next to incompetent warden and his right hand man, Captain Munsie, who thinks he knows how much pressure to apply to which prisoner to get the desired result.
The Cat and Mouse, or game of chess played between Hume Cronyn’s Munsie and Lancaster’s Collins. Each iron willed and with expendable assets or pawns in the form of prisoners, stoolies and guards, though Munsie is far more cunning. It’s Collins’ brute force. Like the Spanish Inquisition, that no one ever expects.
The music by Miklos Roizsa and lighting, or its close to absence in many scenes heightens the tension and terse, often-whispered dialogue. While highlighting the early talents of a large chunk of actors and actresses who would become well known in the future.
The prison. Westgate is a marvel of set construction and direction, a smaller version of Alcatraz. In a film made to draw attention to the failed attempt by a groups of prisoners to escape the San Francisco Bay prison a year earlier. Every bit as detailed and instructive in its revelation as Shawshank Prison almost fifty years later, though far more threatening and imposing.

What Makes This Film Great?

Watching a young, up-and-coming Burt Lancaster, well-received from his earlier film, The Killers. Literally flexing his talents and muscles, pushing the envelope as he finds a comfortable niche. One that combines athleticism and physical strength toned while being a gymnast and acrobat. Along with the ability and talent for a camera to stay focused and follow his every move. That made a great impression here and would come into its own in later films.
Hume Cronyn was positively reveling in a role diametrically opposed to the gentle, friendly roles for which he is fondly remembered.
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Have you seen this film? Thoughts are welcome in the comments.