Jules Dassin has a short way with stool pigeons ~
And this was before he got ratted out to HUAC.
The movie is BRUTE FORCE, really the beginning of director Jules Dassin’s run of good Hollywood films before he was compelled to work abroad (where he made more good films). Dassin tended to completely dismiss his earlier movies, forbidding their inclusion in retrospectives, although his short THE TELL-TALE HEART is excellent, and NAZI AGENT with Conrad Veidt is pretty good. He wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about BRUTE FORCE either, correctly remarking, “But all these prisoners are such nice, sweet people–they’re all so lovely–what are they doing in jail?”
Stuff like the drawn-out assassination the stoolie helps offset the sentimentality, and there’s a fine, nihilistic, quasi-apocalyptic ending, which shores things up. Flashbacks to the prisoners’ lives on the outset allow minute cameos for the likes of Ella Raines and Yvonne DeCarlo, who are always welcome, but they actually puncture airholes in the picture’s claustrophobic intensity, and let the pressure seep out. Inoffensive as scenes, they’re seriously damaging to the dramatic tension.
Fortunately, the movie is held together by the very different styles of Burt Lancaster (physical, simple and direct) and Hume Cronyn (crafty, contrived, but effective) as tough convict and fascist deputy warden. Cronyn is working to undermine his boss by fomenting trouble so he can take over, but he gets more trouble than he’d been counting on. In the concluding riot, the prisoners eventually transform into a foretaste of Romero’s ravenous zombies. It’s pretty alarming.
What makes the conflict more than usually juicy is Cronyn’s decision to play his role quiet, sibilant and coded gay, and Dassin’s collaboration in presenting him with a good bit of innuendo. The rifle polishing is downright suggestive. Torturing a prisoner with a rubber hose while Wagner blasts out of the gramophone is a pretty pointed bit of characterisation, with Hume’s fine array of Greco-Roman muscle art supplying a further raising of the eyebrow.
Dassin is one of cinema’s few likable sadists — his interest in the sexuality of violence or the violence of sexuality seems clear to me, highlighted by whippings in RIFIFI and THE LAW, and the perversity of BRUTE FORCE, but it never splurges out of its rightful place in the narrative. It’s also dramatically harnessed by the storylines of NIGHT AND THE CITY, UP TIGHT! and others, where the whole second half of the narrative consists of putting the protagonist through the ringer (has any leading man ever sweated so much as Richard Widmark in NATC?) — the idea of drama as a means of confronting the hero with everything he fears, everything that could destroy him, destructive testing for the human personality, is very much to the fore. Meanwhile, Melina Mercouri and Maximilian Schell’s relationship in TOPKAPI seems pleasantly kinky.
Furthermore, excusing Dassin’s relish for cruelty is the fact that, as a man, he was more sinned against than sinning. I know of no stories showing him to be cruel personally, but the blacklist certainly caused him to suffer. If he indulges a taste for fantasy violence in his work, that seems decidedly harmless by comparison.
BRUTE FORCE’s prison populace is dotted with familiar faces, like calypso singer Sir Lancelot, familiar from many a Val Lewton chiller, Jeff Corey, and Charles McGraw, whose whisky-singed snarl as one of the titular bad-asses in THE KILLERS should have qualified him for a bigger part, only Lancaster and Ava Gardner apparently stole all the attention in that one.
BRUTE FORCE is an effective prison drama as long as it keeps its mind on its job. Producer Mark Hellinger and screenwriter Richard Brooks are probably responsible for the editorializing from the prison doctor (Art Smith), who delivers drunken lectures at every turn about society’s responsibility to its convicts, but he raises the whole thing up into a tasty film noir stratosphere with his last lines, the absurdly heavy-handed, allegorical, yet rather thrillingly bleak “Nobody ever escapes!” Spoken with a crash of music from Miklos “Mr Subtlety” Rosza, and a pull-back through the prison bars from Dassin, showing the doctor as just as much a prisoner as everybody else, including the audience.
All this week, Shadowplay is participating in the For the Love of Film (Noir) film preservation blogathon. Read more about it here and here. There’s also a donation link, and all contributions go towards restoring Cy Endfield’s searing THE SOUND OF FURY, AKA TRY AND GET ME (reviewed here). This is a really worthwhile cause.