Hume and Desire

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.

Well hello.

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.

22 Responses to “Hume and Desire”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Hume Cronyn in BRUTE FORCE is one of the great coded gay villains of the 40s – up there with Clifton Webb in LAURA, George Macready in GILDA and just about everyone except Bogie in THE MALTESE FALCON.

    A lot of later critics have attacked these films for ‘negative stereotyping’ of gays…but when a character is by far the most interesting and articulate person on screen (not to mention the best actor) the fact that he’s technically the ‘bad guy’ really doesn’t matter so much.

  2. Lenny Bruce’s classic prison routine is largely based on Brute Force, with Lenny doing a superb Hume Cronyn.

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    Art Smith and Jeff Corey were also future Blacklistees. Corey became an influential acting coach.

    The more I see films from the late 40s and early 50s by Dassin, Endfield, Losey, and Polonsky, the more apparent it becomes that The Powers That Be were really out to get them for the content of their films, and HUAC was the means by which that happened (also: the flagrant anti-Semitism of the pols on the Committee was no coincidence).

  4. Corey became a very useful character actor after his comeback, superb in Frankenheimer’s Seconds and both Butch and Sundance movies.

    Noel Burch & Thom Andersen’s Red Hollywood is the first piece of scholarship I’ve seen that actually finds evidence of “subversive” content in Hollywood movies, suggesting that HUAC weren’t just chasing publicity, but actually had fixated on undercurrents of ideological content which they found objectionable. So that it was about political censorship and not just attempting to destroy talented people, which doesn’t make it any better. At all.

  5. There’ s a truly bitter and subversive downturn in early 50’s nor: Losey’s M, The Big Night, The Big Combo, The Sound of Fury/Try and Stop Me

  6. The ending of Brute Force really is something. At the moment I can think of only one only one other golden age film which climaxes in such a surprisingly violent explosion of death and destruction: Beast of the City, from 1932.

  7. > DAssin is one of cinema’s few likeable sadists.

    Well, that’s the sort of statement that one daren’t respond to, since the response will reveal too much of oneself. Still, might I mention the name “Anthony Mann” for this category? Sadism and Mann go together as comfortably as, say Mann and Charles McGraw (cf. the McGraw bits in “Black Book” and “T-Men” and “Spartacus”).

    I tend to connect Bruce’s (superb) jail routine with Darabont’s (loathesome) “Shawshank Redemption.” The latter makes me think of Bruce’s routine, only played at half-speed and minus the laughs.

    And as for violent explosions at a film’s end … “White Heat”?

  8. Bookending his gay warden in BRUTE FORCE, Hume Cronyn plays a gay prisoner in Mankiewicz’s THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN.

  9. Beast of the City and White Heat certainly partake of the apocalyptic spirit. The climax of Island of Lost Souls also reaches Romero-like heights of mayhem, a real “return of the repressed” revolutionary bloodthirst.

    Mann has a taste for pain, and his films are often extremely likable, and good even if they’re not likable. And I find Clouzot oddly appealing, but I’m not sure I can explain that. Maybe because he’s so knowingly perverse. But neither seems to have been too charming a man. Dassin is righteous and high-minded, and his kink forms an odd wrinkle in that persona.

    Speaking of sadism, my fairly distant memory of There Was a Crooked Man includes a distinct whiff of misogyny. Am I right, or did my prudish teenage self take things the wrong way?

  10. David Boxwell Says:

    Another thumbs up from me for Clouzot’s GLORIOUSLY, SUBLIMELY nasty, cruel LE CORBEAU. Perhaps the best film, from anywhere, that captures the sick(ened) spirit of Nazi-occupied Western Europe, and what Fascism reduced people to.

  11. This role was quite a stretch for Hume as compared to his debut a few years earlier, as the rather nerdy murder-obsessed neighbor Herb in SHADOW OF A DOUBT. Another face in this film that gets overlooked is Vince Barnett (Muggsy), who so memorably played Muni’s comic foil in SCARFACE. He’s also noteworthy in THE HIGH WALL, as the conniver who (unsuccessfully) tries to blackmail Herbert Marshall’s book publisher. Once you’ve seen a face like Vince’s it’s impossible to forget.

  12. Misogyny in THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN? It’s been decades since I’ve seen it, and I don’t even recall any female characters – it takes place in a frontier prison, and all the prisoners are male. However, it was an *extremely* misanthropic film, so a little bit of misogyny would’ve fit right in there.

  13. Or we could say that Shadow of a Doubt was the stretch, since he was about 20 years too young for the part.

    There are a lot of Great Faces in the background and crowd scenes in this film, but Barnett is the most heavily-featured. I like his unlikely high-pitched voice too.

    Le Corbeau is sneakily double-sided, or triple-sided. Does it detail the corruption of France (it’s based on a pre-war incident), of the occupation (made for a German company under Nazi supervision, it upset both sides) or humanity in general? Going by Clouzot’s track record, I’d say the last.

  14. If one is going to talk about misanthropic filmmakers, Clouzot must be mentioned. I agree that the bad behavior in LE CORBEAU has less to do with France or the Occupation than it does with Clouzot’s view of “humanity in general.” A useful comparison is THE WHITE RIBBON by Michael Haneke – another misanthrope. A lot of reviewers read the bad behavior in THE WHITE RIBBON as some kind of foreshadowing of the rise of Nazism, but if you’ve seen other Haneke films, it’s pretty clear that what goes on in THE WHITE RIBBON is consistent with Haneke’s view of mankind at any time in any place.

  15. My favorite gay film noir characters are Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman in Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo.

  16. […] David Cairns, takes on another favorite film, one with a homosexual subtext (? Oh yes, definitely), Brute Force at his wonderful blog […]

  17. My favorite gay *film noir* character is Clifton Webb in “Laura.” I forget who said it, but I liked [writer X]’s comment about how, in “Laura,” Dana Andrews is in the classic position of being caught between the “good girl” and “bad girl” — only the latter happens to be Clifton Webb.

    Just about my only memory of “There Was A Crooked Man” — seen on TV in the middle of the night — involves a female character. It’s a mimed bit where we see a serious-looking young black woman in the kitchen who puts a ‘do rag on her hair, fastens it, walks into the dining room and becomes a Hattie McDaniel-style bustling comic caricature. A show for the boss, in other words. What we saw was the distance between what she was in private and what she had to become.

  18. Van Cleef and Holliman in THE BIG COMBO are a great gay pair. They compare interestingly to the co-dependent criminal pair played by Eli Wallach and Robert Keith in Siegel’s THE LINEUP, another ’50s noir. One of the first and one of my favorite coded gay film noir characters is Laird Cregar in I WAKE UP SCREAMING. He plays a policeman sadistically obsessed with Victor Mature’s character. And I WAKE UP SCREAMING was one of the very first American noirs.

  19. For another perspective, here’s what I wrote about Brute Force last November, when it screened at PFA:

  20. Chris, that sounds like a good scene. The one that stuck in my mind involved a prison visitor being stripped of her clothes during a riot. The threat of rape played for comedy — it struck me that a few Hollywood directors, who’d made very advanced films which celebrated strong women, showed signs of creeping misogyny when they were finally able to be more frank.

    Love love love Laird Cregar, and since the character he plays in IWUS was modeled on Cornell Woolrich in the source novel, the idea of displacing his fascination with the hero onto a dead woman MUST have been a strategy to code gayness into the character.

    Great piece, John! Hellinger was a huge loss. Love his VO in The Naked City.

  21. Hey, this blog is terrific. I wrote a little bit about Brute Force as well, over at:

    Some of these films mentioned in the comments sound like must-sees.

    Thanks again.

  22. Great post! I’ll add you to my blogroll!

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