(1947) dir. Jules Dassin
Why it took me so long to discover director Jules Dassin, I’ll have to clock up to circumstance. But after seeing his influential caper film, Rififi (1955), I’ve queued up his other works, which actually had already been in my Netflix queue. I just queued them higher. I think I rented Brute Force first because it was the earliest of his films in my queue.
Brute Force is considered a film noir but is a prison film, not the most typical of settings for noir, but not an inapt one. Starring Burt Lancaster as the leader of the inmates, it follows the brutality of the prison system on the prisoners, especially as meted out by sadist Hume Cronyn, the leader of the guards. And while the actual warden is a man of liberal leanings, one who prefers reform to brutality, the failure of the system and growing anatagonism leads to a very violent prisonbreak, quite shocking even today, much less at the time of the film’s production in 1947.
The film depicts the criminals as nobles, largely, none of whose back-story shows them to be anything other than would-be good-guys caught in wrong situations or at least somewhat emotionally understandable situations that lead them to prison. Some of the situations and narrative tropes are just straight-up genre functions, which are the film’s weakest moments. But Dassin’s cast is stellar, through and through, with all interesting faces, tough guys who are characters, and a knack for the action and violence that acts out the world of the prison.
Prison films aren’t a particular favorite of mine, but there is an interesting interview on this DVD with a film scholar who specializes in the genre and offers some good context for reading this film and considering others. Lancaster is rock solid, with his pained expressions, you can read the bleakness right from his eyes. And also, there is a tiny cameo by the stunning Ella Raines.
A solid and interesting film, not my favorite, but certainly calls for further viewing of Dassin’s oeuvre.