Brute Force March 3, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s , trackback
We’re nearing the one-year anniversary of director Jules Dassin’s death and his films, as ever, have been on my mind lately. It was last March 31st when Dassin died at the age of 96, a survivor of the film industry’s schizophrenic ups and downs. At the time, I was compelled to lay a little wreath of words out for him and Richard Widmark, who starred for Dassin in Night and the City and preceded his director in death by only a week. I’ve got another piece planned on Dassin’s film Thieves’ Highway later this month for the Noir of the Week site. I’m also quite impressed with the 15-movie retrospective at New York’s Film Forum in March and April.
In preparation of all this, I pulled out my Brute Force DVD, released by Criterion a couple of years ago now and just one of the boutique label’s five discs dedicated to a Dassin film. Criterion’s continued appreciation of Jules Dassin is absolutely one of the company’s most admirable and important reputation-building endeavors. Though Dassin was somewhat known in the 1960s, largely on the basis of the popular and Oscar-nominated import Never on Sunday which is a highly watchable film that nonetheless pales next to his earlier work, and his Rififi semi-remake Topkapi, responsible for Peter Ustinov’s second Academy Award, the five films Criterion has put out fell a little by the wayside on their initial releases. It may have been Rififi’s theatrical re-release by Rialto Pictures that got the ball rolling for the director. From what I’ve read, it was a minor sensation upon opening at Film Forum in 2000, and set house records for box office ($18,000 on opening weekend in a 180-seat screening room).
A Criterion Collection DVD of Rififi followed, with Night and the City and Thieves’ Highway coming a couple of years later. These were either good sellers or someone at Criterion particularly likes Dassin because The Naked City and Brute Force were later given spine numbers too. I think the pair of movies he did at Fox (Night and the City and Thieves’ Highway) are my favorites, but all are good, solid releases that are worth having if you enjoy film noir. R2 editions also exist, or are soon to, for all four, including BFI’s Night and the City release and upcoming editions of Brute Force and The Naked City from Arrow.
Something shared between the two films originally distributed by Universal - Brute Force and The Naked City - is the involvement of producer Mark Hellinger, whose name was certainly a bigger draw than Dassin’s at the time, a fact illustrated by the one-sheet at the top of this post. I tend to see Hellinger’s input as probably close to the level of Dassin’s on those pictures because of the recognition the producer had received for The Killers and other crime movies, though he suffered a fatal heart attack prior to the release of The Naked City. The earlier film, 1947’s Brute Force, actually feels more like a Dassin movie than the latter Hellinger collaboration, however. It’s largely uncompromising, relentlessly pessimistic and the film seems enthralled with characters who, under most any other circumstances, would be the bad guys. There’s almost a hierarchy of villainry presented, where those who broke the law aren’t necessarily relegated to being the ones in the wrong. The sense of the authority figures being the actual persons to fear is overwhelming.
What we now know of Dassin’s politics - very leftist, blacklisted for his ties to Communism - can easily be transferred into Brute Force, but I’m hesitant to go too far in that direction. The thinking here is that the sadistic, veiled homosexual prison guard Captain Munsey (played in a possibly career best performance by Hume Cronyn) represents a fascist leader and the inmates, led by Burt Lancaster’s Joe Collins, are the oppressed resistance forces. This theory basically works, even if it reduces quite possibly the best American prison movie and one of the bleakest films of its era to an allegory. Yet, the reason I’m hesitant to go down that route with Dassin captaining the ship is because he was hardly an established director at this point in his career. He’d made seven features, all for MGM. We’re talking about things like Reunion in France starring Joan Crawford and John Wayne, The Canterville Ghost with Charles Laughton, and the Lucille Ball starrer Two Smart People.
Little in Dassin’s filmography could’ve prepared anyone for the ferocity of Brute Force and I’m skeptical as to whether Hellinger would’ve given him the keys to make a political statement. It’s there, sure, but I think it’s more incidental than focal. Furthermore, it was Richard Brooks who wrote the screenplay. Brooks would go on to be a versatile director of The Professionals and Elmer Gantry, among many others, and he’s someone who probably doesn’t get discussed enough nowadays. Though his films aren’t all overtly political, I do believe Brooks was another one with leftist ideals. So if Brute Force must be seen for its ideological undercurrent, I think some restraint is necessary before attributing these intentions to Dassin, who apparently claimed later that he didn’t even like the film.
Instead, let’s applaud how brilliantly Dassin handles the less peripheral aspects of Brute Force. I’m content to base my admiration for him as a director on the five films released by Criterion because of how individually unique and modern they are. Both Brute Force and The Naked City suffer a little when compared against the wealth of similarly-themed movies that have followed. But if you look at the films of the ’40s and ’50s that attempt to do the same sort of thing Dassin was going for there’s no comparison. Dassin’s films are alive, lacking the nostalgia and the chains of the period. They breathe and flow and scurry ’round while their peers mostly adhere to, as opposed to create, a formula. Watching Brute Force is a reminder of just how dynamic Dassin could be. From the opening, a wholly rain-soaked primer of gloom that immediately sets the right mood, to the blazing final climax, he has the viewer pinned inside a well of claustrophobia and hopelessness.
That the entire movie functions only within the prison seems completely intentional. The few scenes not set inside are expository flashbacks where the inmates remember the women in their lives. Even these find the future convicts trapped in some way. One perceives his marriage falling apart so he embezzles enough to buy a fur coat for his wife. Another’s love is confined to a wheelchair, limiting both of their possibilities. The smooth lothario prisoner gets taken by his new female friend, stripping away his money and method of transportation in the process. These are all men who were already stuck. Instead of the typical concerns of fatalism, Brute Force exists more on an existentialist plane. The prisoners are shown lacking freedom even on the outside while their lives on the inside are entirely dictated by others. When several are forced to work on a drainpipe that’s of questionable use, they simply do it because it’s what they’ve been told to do. Like the doctor says at the end in a dual-edged Production Code appeasement/added touch of pessimism, nobody ever really escapes.
This extreme gloominess is part of what establishes Brute Force as an unquestionable film noir. The bookends of scenes set amid rain and fire are appropriate, almost Biblical visuals where chaos and disaster lurk as a constant threat. We pretty much know going in that a pleasant ending is unlikely to be in store. Indeed, almost every single point of confrontation ends badly for one of the characters. Whether it’s Munsey getting into the head of poor Tom Lister or the flashbacks or the snitch’s horrific death, Brute Force consistently lives up to its title while retaining a certain psychologically damaged undercurrent. I don’t think the prisoners are portrayed necessarily as sympathetic, and none have even implied innocence, but it’s clear that the Purgatorial confinement is doing more harm than good. Whether the inmates are dying, circling the facilities, or likely to emerge with a gigantic chip on the shoulder and a scarlet letter, rehabilitation is a foreign concept in the film.
By the flame-soaked ending, it’s apparent that struggle outweighs acquiescence. Lancaster’s character is celebrated by Dassin as a martyr for destroying Munsey. Collins’ escape wasn’t what he intended, but he still managed to rid himself of the prison’s oppression. The allegory then rears its head quite strongly if we’re meant to side with the incarcerated. Like Jacques Becker’s Le Trou, this is the rare pro-prisoner movie. From an entirely straightforward angle, Dassin stages the finale to maximize tension and unease. A wounded Collins staggers up the tower to confront Munsey amid the roaring inferno. As the battle ensues, our allegiance is squarely with Collins regardless of his past. We’ve clearly seen Munsey’s present and it’s laced with sadism. Cronyn’s prison guard is painted as such a hateful, loathsome creature that the viewer wants his demise to occur exactly as it does. Moral conflicts aside, the film sacrifices Collins for Munsey while reminding us that next Tuesday never comes.