Archive for Brute Force

C is for Carcel de Mujeres

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2011 by dcairns

Once more, special guest Shadowplayer David Melville takes us down Mexico way ~

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

 C is for Carcel de mujeres (Women’s Prison)

 “She has no idea what’s in store for her,” sneers a young and very sexy Sarita Montiel – as two butch uniformed guards lead an angelic blonde beauty (Miroslava Stern) into the riotous main hall of the Mexico City Penitentiary for Women. In fact, we in the audience can hazard a guess. Just a few shots away, the movie’s most ostentatious lesbian (Katy Jurado) is languidly stroking the hair of a cute blonde companion.

Prison melodramas were all the rage in Hollywood in the late 40s. Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947) put Burt Lancaster at the mercy of sadistic closet case Hume Cronyn. Caged (John Cromwell, 1950) had Eleanor Parker and Agnes Moorehead under the guard of terrifying Hope Emerson, and is still cherished as a minor camp classic. Yet for me the ne plus ultra of the genre is Carcel de mujeres (whose title translates bluntly as Women’s Prison) directed by one Miguel Delgado in 1951. This Mexican variant is like the Hollywood movies, only much more so…and that, in the realm of melodrama, can only be a Good Thing.

The first thing we see is a glamorously garbed woman – her face cast in shadow, the moonlight aglow on her slinky white fur. Her arm, clanking with jewels, reaches out and fires a round of bullets into her sleazy, no-good boyfriend (Tito Junco). The police arrest two suspects: Sarita, a brassy nightclub chanteuse, his mistress and partner in his shady deals, and Miroslava, a respectable doctor’s wife, who had a brief fling with him before her marriage. She’s still wearing her immaculate high-fashion gown when the guards lead her into the clink. The other ladies gang up and tear the fancy duds off her back.

This being Mexico in the 1950s, the script (with dialogue by Max Aub) is not exactly on the cutting edge of Political Correctness. When poor Miroslava gets arrested, her stuffy dolt of a husband is less concerned that his wife is going to prison, than worried that she might not have been a virgin on their bridal night. (“My dear, do you have anything to reproach yourself for?”) When he comes to visit her in stir, she gazes at him tearfully and wails: “My love, how you have suffered for my sake!”

When hubby is big-hearted enough to suggest that she might be suffering too, she replies with a line that sums up the whole ethos of melodrama, Mexican or otherwise: “No suffering is too great, if it makes our love grow stronger!” The brilliance of the genre lies in convincing an audience of hardened cynics that yes, people actually do talk this way – and, what’s more, the sadomasochistic wallowing they express is not only natural but admirable. Watch enough movies of this sort, and you may start to talk like this too.

Once Miroslava is behind bars, a spiteful Sarita sets out to make her life a living hell – even throwing a bowl of hot soup into her face! This is the cue for a spectacular cat-fight, which all their fellow inmates join in. An orgy of bitch-slapping and hair-pulling erupts in the dining hall, so the (male) guards have to step in and hose down the ladies with water cannons. Both women must also contend with a slinky, sinister warden (Maria Douglas) who’s a cross between Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Any pretty young thing who doesn’t do her bidding is liable to wind up in solitary confinement. (“One meal a week and six days on bread and water is the best way to keep your figure, don’t you think?”)

At last, the two rivals bury the hatchet when Sarita gives birth, behind bars, to Junco’s baby and Miroslava saves it from an elderly psycho who wants to “teach the little angel how to fly”. There’s still time, of course, for a climactic riot and mass break-out…and we even get to find out who committed the crime! Nobody would ever mistake Carcel de mujeres for a work of art, but it sure packs a lot into 85 minutes.

Off screen, life did not run quite so smoothly. The beauteous Miroslava committed suicide at a young age – but not before appearing in one of Luis Buñuel’s best films, Ensayo de un crimen/The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955). Sarita (or Sara, as she is now known) thrives to this day in her native Spain. Returning home from her sojourn in Mexico and Hollywood, she reigned as queen of the kitsch musical melodramas known as españoladas. (The most unmissable are La Violetera (1958), La bella Lola (1962) and Variétés (1971)). An icon to three generations of drag queens, she also inspired the Pedro Almodóvar film Bad Education (2004). 

David Melville

W.I.P. marks

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2011 by dcairns

WOMEN’S PRISON, a 1955 melo from director Lewis Seiler, follows the same formula as BRUTE FORCE, only with women and more conventional 1950s attitudes. Thus, Ida Lupino plays the sadistic warden, a hissable hate figure, but the politics have been stripped away. Howard Duff, who played an ex-soldier con in BF, here plays a sympathetic prison doctor, devoid of any credible personality, whose role is to reinforce the patriarchy and make it clear that the film doesn’t criticise the powers that be, just uppity, loveless career women and the practice of imprisoning men and women in adjacent buildings.

While Jules Dassin’s 40s minor classic gives us Sir Lancelot singing most of his dialogue in calypso style, here we’re introduced to Juanita Moore scrubbing floors on her knees while singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The prison is obviously segregated, with all the black prisoners in their own cell, but no comment is made on this. The cigar-smoking diesel dykes stomping around in the pre-code Stanwyck WIP film LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT are long gone, of course, and even the frigid Lupino is judged straight by Duff, the voice of authority. (After introducing the lesbian quotient, that pre-coder even has the nerve to fade the scene out with “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” on the soundtrack…) Duff deduces that Lupino’s unloving, career-chasing personality repels all right-thinking men, and she’s now eaten up with jealousy for the women in her charge, “every one of whom has known love.” An inanely 50s approach to dollarbook Freud pop psychology.

Even without that sexist subtext, the continual provocation to despise Lupino and root for her to get killed  would be a little disturbing. When she’s pursued by an avenging male prisoner at the end, the movie seems to realize it’s gone too far and starts backing away from its own bloodlust. I doubt a modern film would bother.

But entertainment value comes from Lupino’s frosty sadism, and the wealth of female talent in support. Phyllis Thaxter seems like the lead character at first, but goes to pieces under the strain of confinement and is forced to sit out most of the action in a padded cell. No clear decision has been made as to the lead character, but Cleo Moore and Jan Sterling dominate, with great back-up from Vivian Marshall, a stripper who wanted to be a professional mimic, couldn’t get the breaks, and shot her agent (Jennings Lang?).

Fiona enjoyed this big load of tosh, which I might have given up on. Yet, as a bad taste spectacle of melodramatic baloney, it’s actually pretty enjoyable. We don’t get to see Marshall do a striptease with impersonations thrown in, but she does a great Bette Davis, and later turns her talents to plot-advancement when, by way of dubbing, she puts on Lupino’s voice and bypasses security. A shame they had to cheat and loop her, but her body language is still impressive: the precision of Ida’s drama-queen gestures is amped up to 11. Poor Marshall never got a better role — if she didn’t shoot her agent for real, she should have.

Donate here to help rescue THE SOUND OF FURY, a much better and more progressive noir. Read more about the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon at Ferdy on Film and The Self Styled Siren. And stay out of trouble!

Hume and Desire

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2011 by dcairns

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.

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