I watched BRUTE FORCE (1947) yesterday. I'd seen it once or twice before but I'd forgotten just what a brilliant film it is. With a screenplay by Richard Brooks and direction by Jules Dassin, this men-in-prison film noir is a coiled-spring of tension that is finally unleashed in a spectacular climax.
Burt Lancaster stars as Collins, a brooding prisoner with only one thing on his mind: escape. He's up against the sadistic Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), who uses both mental and physical abuse against the caged convicts. It's a monumental clash of wills with Lancaster an implacable force of nature pitted against a sinister and scheming villain.
Lancaster is joined in his escape attempt by his cellmates (six men to a cell!): John Hoyt, Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Whit Bissell and Jack Overman. All of these actors are good with Bissell (in his film debut) a stand-out as a broken man driven to suicide by Capt. Munsey. Lancaster is also aided by Charles Bickford and Sam Levene, two convicts in charge of the prison newspaper. When Bickford learns his parole has been indefinitely suspended, he throws in with Lancaster in the escape plan.
There's a sympathetic, hard-drinking prison doctor played by Art Smith (who looks and sounds like the late Howard Cosell). Other cons include genre icon Charles McGraw in a small part and Sir Lancelot as Calypso, a Jamaican prisoner whose sing-song delivery of dialogue acts as a Greek chorus to comment on the action.
The "women on the outside" (as they're billed in the credits) include Yvonne De Carlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines and Anita Colby. These actresses each appear in their own flashback scenes where their relationships with individual prisoners are established. The actresses are good in their limited roles but this is a testosterone driven film about male anxieties, not a relationship picture.
Westgate Prison is depicted as a monolithic block of stone from which escape is impossible. Lancaster believes otherwise and his plan requires getting himself and his cellmates transferred to the work detail in a tunnel known as the "drain pipe". From there, using military strategy and tactics, the escape attempt will be set into motion.
Brooks's screenplay crackles with tough, hard boiled dialogue and well drawn portrayals of the men behind bars. Our sympathies clearly are with the criminal Lancaster and his men because Cronyn's Captain Munsey is portrayed as purely evil. Director Dassin nicely frames his compositions to illustrate the ways in which the men are trapped within both physical and psychological space and he orchestrates a fast paced and exciting climax in the escape attempt. Adding immensely to the film is the furious score by Miklos Rozsa.
Director Jules Dassin went on to make several other classic films noir: THIEVES' HIGHWAY, NIGHT AND THE CITY and THE NAKED CITY as well as the definitive French caper film RIFIFI. BRUTE FORCE is a magnificent film full of memorable characters and an atmosphere of doom and fatality. It's one of the best noirs ever made. Highest recommendation.