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.

Have you seen this film? Thoughts are welcome in the comments.

22 thoughts on “Classic Flix Review: Brute Force (1947)

  1. I have not seen this film but I know of it, Kevin.

    In hindsight I have really come to respect Burt Lancaster as an actor. I had initially only thought of him as a chiseled tough guy. As odd as it is to see him lip syncing in The Leopard, that is truly an interesting film.

  2. Hi, iluv:

    Thanks so much for dropping by and starting off the conversation.

    Great catch with The Leopard !

    Burt Lancaster is one of my favorite actors. Tough, strong willed and possessing a presence that made him a shoo in for tough guy roles early on in The Killers and Brute Force .

    There was also a quiet dignity and fearlessness about Burt that made him appealing. Not in the suave lady’s man arena, but in taking on tough topics and unlikeable characters in Sweet Smell of Success, Judgement At Nuremberg and Birdman of Alcatraz and making them powerful and memorable.

    Burt lobbied for his role of Prince Fabrizio Salina in The Leopard and added style and dignity in a family intrigue costume drama that doesn’t get enough loving.

  3. Matt Stewart

    Good review Kevin!

    I have not seen this one myself, but I once highly considered it, I will check it out now though!

    1. Hi, Matt:

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

      I caught Brute Force during a TCM Movie Month devoted to Burt Lancaster.

      Like you, I’d heard of the film, but had never seen it. Having grown up with Cagney, Bogart and Edward G. Robinson/Warner Brothers gangster films, I was pulled into the film’s shadowy, claustrophobic look, feel and despair under Jules Dassin’s superlative touch. Which would be seen again in The Naked City a year later.

      Both Amazon and have it for sale. So, there’s a fair chance Netflix has it to rent or stream.

  4. I watched Lancaster on Sweet Smell of Success and I think that’s the only time I’ve seen him. His name is well known and while I haven’t seen a lot of his work, I was interested in this. I should try to check it out.

    1. I’ve never seen a Burt Lancaster film before, but I’ve been curious to see ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ as it’s got Tony Curtis as well. So I might rent that one.

      Great review Jack, it’s just this film doesn’t sound like my cup of tea 🙂

      1. Hi, Ruth:

        I’m glad you dropped by!

        Prison pictures are not everyone’s cup of tea. Heck, outside of Clancy Brown’s Captain Byron Hadley, I’m still not a huge fan of The Shawshank Redemption .

        If you haven’t seen a Burt Lancaster film before. I’d suggest From Here To Eternity and save Sweet Smell of Success for a later date,

        Burt’s Sgt. Warden is a great depiction of a protective career NCO and Top Kick looking after his garrisoned troops just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. While having an affair with his Captain’s wife, Deborah Kerr.

        Also notable for putting Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift on the map as Pvt.s Maggio and Prewitt.

        PS: I’ve just broken ground on a Guest Review of 12 O’ Clock High to coincide with and placate your Gregory Peck fixation. 🙂

        1. Oh yeah, From Here To Eternity is another one I’ve been meaning to see.

          Wahoo!! So you’re gonna give that 12 O’Clock High review to me soon? Can’t wait to read it. Thank you for indulging me, you’re a pal! 😀

    2. Welcome, Max!

      Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      I find it odd that one of the most what today would be called ‘Bankable’ and prolific actors of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s is not as well known today.

      Burt’s work in Sweet Smell of Success is a benchmark of portraying a quietly sinister, very powerful, not very likeable man in a memorable fashion. Perfectly foiled by Tony Curtis’s slimy Sidney Falco.

      If you want to see Burt at his most beguiling and conniving, Give Elmer Gantry, Trapeze or The Rainmaker a try.

      1. Thanks Jack. I’ll look into those films as well. I guess Sweet Smell of Success wasn’t the best film to start looking into his career, but he was really good in it.

        1. Hi, Max:

          I consider Sweet Smell of Success to be required viewing.
          For James Wong Howe’s brilliant B&W camera work, New York’s Times Square as a backdrop and for Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis’s Sidney Falco. Both are comfortable and excellent in their roles portraying unlikeable characters.

          Though it isn’t what I would first select to be introduced to Mr. Lancaster’s many, varied talents. I’d lean more towards From Here To Eternity or the films I’d mentioned earlier.

  5. FUNK

    Thanks Kevin, for bringing this film to our attention and great write up, I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. Been a Lancaster fan all my life and he’s also one of my favorite actors, hope you do a few more reviews on some of his films.

    1. Hi, Funk!

      It’s my pleasure to bring some attention to small, errant, though powerful films that have left an impression.

      Brute Force has that in spades! With a young, hungry Burt Lancaster fully in his element opposite a lot of up and coming talent in future films.

      Specifically Hume Cronyn’s calmly terrifying Captain Munsie. The Women on the Outside, Ella Raines’ Cora Lister, Ann Blythe’s Ruth, Yvonne De Carlo’s Gina Ferrarra and the stoic face of 1950s and 60s Sci-Fi, Whit Bissell as the quiet and bookish Tom Lister.

      I’ve got reviews of Run Silent, Run Deep, Scorpio and Atlantic City tickling the back of my brain right now,

      Thanks for your great comments!

      1. FUNK

        Can’t wait to read those, also your recommendations to Max are spot on, other films of his I immensely like are The Professionals and The Swimmer, but all in all I enjoy all his films, seems like the older I become, the more appreciation I have for him. Watching him in Elmer Gantry does make me a little misty eyed though..

  6. Ted S.

    Great review Jack, I actually never heard of this movie but it’s a genre that I love. I might have to give it a rent.

    1. Hi, Ted:

      Thanks so much!

      William Daniels’ lushly shadowed B&W camera work really heightens the cramped, claustrophobic cells, tiers and corners where plots hatch and fates are decided.

      Burt Lancaster is also great to watch. There’s a slowly building explosion of anger underneath his skin that he keeps under wraps in stoic, gazing silence when he’s out of his cell and away from his crew. Until it finally erupts. Definitely one of Burt’s best and most under rated roles!

  7. Excellent review Jack. I love your format for critiquing movies. Makes it a breeze to read 😀 Haven’t seen Brute Force but your wild raves definitely got to me. I will give it a shot!

    1. Welcome, Castor!

      Thanks for your comments and compliment.

      I kind of let the format just happen. While keeping it as user friendly as possible and not giving too much away. 🙂

      You’d be surprised how much story is packed into the film’s 98 minutes.
      It’s well worth the trip!

  8. JD, I am adding this to my LOOKING BACK season when it arrives. Sounds fantastic!

    I agree with Castor you do spin us on a lovely breakdown and journey through the film.

    Nice work SIR!

  9. Hi, Scott!

    Thanks so much, my friend.

    I’ll admit that your LOOKING BACK New Year’s resolution intrigued me when I first saw it. Definitely a fertile field ripe for exploration.

    One of the things I’ve admired in older films is the amount of story and memorable moments packed into roughly an hour and half or less on a regular basis. I try to get the gist of the story down the best that I can without tipping my hand.

    Kudos to Ruth for suggesting I review a film by Mr. Lancaster.

  10. Another brilliant post JD!

    I’ve never actually heard of this one before, but you make it sound like it’s one I can’t miss. I’ll have to place it on my ever growing list of films to find.

    1. Good morning, Bonjour:

      Thanks so much!

      If I’ve piqued your curiosity and interest, it means that I’ve done my job well. I’m sure you’ll find Brute Force is well work the effort to seek out and savor.

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