Brute Force: The Criterion Collection
Jules Dassin, director of such great films as Night and the City (1960), Rififi (1955), Never on Sunday (1950), The Naked City (1948) and Topkapi (1964) walked on the grimmer side of noir with this intense prison picture about the horrors of the big house. In one of his first starring roles, Burt Lancaster plays Joe Collins, the tough, weary leader of a group of time-hardened prisoners whose lives are made all the more unbearable by the sadistic security chief, Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Despite some wimpy disapproval on the part of the prison's cowardly warden (Roman Bohnen) and booze-soaked doctor (Art Smith), Munsey rules the prison with an iron fist and uses approval from the state's higher-ups to continue his vicious treatment of the inmates. Collins, just returned to the cell block after ten days in solitary confinement, begins to plot a prison break with the other inmates, while Munsey schemes to usurp the warden and take over his job. Throughout, we get occasional flashbacks to see how some of the inmates ended up in the slammer an accountant (Whit Bissell) embezzled from his employer to buy a fur coat for his greedy wife (Ella Raines), Soldier (newcomer Howard Duff, listed in the credits as "Radio's 'Sam Spade'") ended up on the wrong side of the U.S. Army's military police because of the Fascist father of his beautiful Italian war bride (Yvonne de Carlo), and Collins recalls his love for a chronically ill woman (Ann Blyth). Dassin, a left-wing Jew who would end up blacklisted a few years later for his passionate political convictions, exploits the 1948 audience's hatred of the Third Reich throughout, with Cronyn's evil security chief strutting about in a big, military-style hat and crisp, tailored uniform, the guards "just following orders" like good Nazis, and the inmates serving as the oppressed victims of their totalitarian overlord. Lancaster is surprisingly subdued, with only a hint of the jaw-clenching caricature that he would later become, but it's Cronyn who's mesmerizing here if you've only ever seen him as the twinkly-eyed little old man in his later works with wife Jessica Tandy, then you're in for a skin-crawling treat when you watch him strip down to his undershirt to better beat a convict half to death with a rubber hose. The final prison shoot-out is violent, tense, and gruesome, capping a film that's a surprisingly effective examination of social class and the corrupting influence of power, with beautiful, dark cinematography by William Daniels and a high-pressure score by Miklos Rozsa.
The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Brute Force offers up a nicely restored transfer of the film, not as crisp as many Criterion remasters, but very clean just the same. The DD 1.0 audio is as good as it needs to be and does the job well. Extras include a commentary track by noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini that fluctuates between solid information and self-indulgent anecdotes; a video interview with Paul Mason, editor of "Captured by the Media: Prison Discourse in Popular Culture" on the importance of films like Brute Force on real-life prison reform; the original theatrical trailer; and a stills gallery. The package includes a 34-page booklet with stills, an essay by critic Michael Atkinson, a profile of producer Mark Hellinger, and correspondence regarding the film's content between Hellinger and Joseph Breen, the administrator of the film industry's Production Code. Keep-case.