Thursday 17 July 2008

Brute Force (1947)

With a title like Brute Force, you can be sure this one isn't going to be a walk in the park. That's backed up by having Burt Lancaster in the lead, as he would fit in a film with this title even if he was just a silhouette against a wall. He was just drawn that way. To make him fit even better though, he plays a tough inmate at the Westgate Penitentiary burning to get out because his wife is dying of cancer but refuses to get treatment until he's with her. Joe Collins is his name, he's well respected by his fellows and his guards, though his influence is very noticed by the chief guard, Capt Munsey.

Lancaster is fine but it's Munsey that's the most dominant character, even though he's small and flimsy and wouldn't stand up to Collins in a fight for more than a couple of punches. He uses his brain and his position to get places and he walks a whole bunch of lines with awesome control and balance, manoeuvering his way with threats both subtle and not so subtle. With a weak warden and a bright but generally passive doctor as his fellow officials, he's the power behind the throne well on his way to sitting in it himself.

In this company he appeared to me like an Gestapo officer in a room full of German army officers. It doesn't matter how many stripes they have, he's the dangerous one and he's played with panache by Hume Cronyn. Capt Munsey is the one with the network of informants, always eager to add more, and one of them tells him about Collins's break. Collins plans to get out, Munsey plans to let him try but fail and make himself the hero of the day in the process.

The ensuing cat and mouse activity of these two lead characters is what forms our story. There are various little stories too woven in and amongst the big one, showing us who the various characters were outside the walls and how they came to be inside them. One is a petty thief fiddling his company's books to give his wife a fur coat, another is a soldier with a great love in Italy. Charles Bickford plays a gang man and long term prisoner whose hopes for parole are dashed, making him desperate.

I got the impression early on that the film wanted to be really tough, but it doesn't play that way. It's no easy ride, that's for sure, but it's far more psychological than it is vicious. It's no social story like the old Warner Brothers prison dramas, but it's a character study. It's a serious film, but it has light hearted moments. It's an action film, though the action takes a long while to come. Most of all though it's a thriller, as we try to guess at what twists the scriptwriters have in store for us, and especially on that front it delivers. The ending is fitting and well deserved and it doesn't cheat anyone.

Lancaster is fine, as I'm learning he usually was. Charles Bickford is solid as always and Hume Cronyn is awesome. The director Jules Dassin was a great and underrated director. I've seen six of his films now, from 1941's The Tell-Tale Heart to 1964's Topkapi, and two of them are absolute classics: The Naked City and Rififi. There are others here too, some of which I know, and this film surprised me by nudging me over half of the entire filmography of one of the supporting actors: Sir Lancelot, a calypso singer from the West Indies, who sings more lines than he speaks here. I've seen him in a number of Val Lewton films, plus To Have and Have Not and Zombies on Broadway. That looks like the best of them but it'll be interesting to see the rest.

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