Saturday Night Cinema: Brute Force


For tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic, I return to the genre I most adore, noir. Brute Force stars Burt Lancaster and a cast against type Hume Cronyn in Jules Dassin’s first foray into noir. It is one of the bleakest and most powerful crime prison melodramas ever made.

Hard-hitting and gritty, this prison film chronicles the cruelty of a sadistic, egomaniacal prison guard who vents his considerable hatred upon the inmates of Cell R17. One inmate in particular tires of the abuse and begins plotting a daring escape after spending time in solitary confinement.

This prison system depicted in this film is absolutely unrecognizable from prisons today with their gyms, law libraries and state-of-the-art technology. Just sayin.

THE SCREEN; ‘ Brute Force,’ Prison Thriller, With Hume Cronyn Marked as Villain, Bill at Criterion — New Melodrama at Palace
By BOSLEY CROWTHER, NY Times, Published: July 17, 1947

Not having intimate knowledge of prisons or prisoners, we wouldn’t know whether the average American convict is so cruelly victimized as are the principal prison inmates in “Brute Force,” which came to Loew’s Criterion yesterday. But to judge by this “big house” melodrama, the poor chaps who languish in our jails are miserably and viciously mistreated and their jailers are either weaklings or brutes.


As a matter of fact, the foremost prisoners in this latest Mark Hellinger film seem to be rather all-around good fellows who deserve our most generous regard. One is an ex-Army corporal who apparently took the rap for a murder done by his girl-friend on her black-marketing father in Italy. (It is this noble lad who suggests the tactic, a flanking movement, for the eventual prison break.) Another is a former bookkeeper who only stole a few thousand, after all, to give his dear wife a mink coat. (When he hears she has quit him, it breaks his sensitive heart.) Yet another is a cool and charming con man. And the leader—the big boy—is a gent who apparently took to banditry in order to support an invalid sweetheart.

On the other hand, the warden of the prison is an obvious ineffectual, the doctor is a philosophical drunkard and the captain of the guards is a rogue. Indeed, he is a cold and scheming sadist who thirsts for power over men, who beats a prisoner to the tearful strains of Wagner and bears a fearful resemblance to—you know who!

Any wonder, then, that audience sympathy is directed entirely to the prisoners when they make their big break for freedom, which is the obvious climax of the film? And any wonder that the inferential parallel seems to be to a concentration camp, with the prisoners the pitiable victims and the authorities the villains with the clubs?

Well, assuming you have a fancy for violence and rough stuff on the screen, you will find a sufficiency of it in this deliberately brutal film. A stool-pigeon is forced under a huge press; there is a suicide, a juicy third-degree and as riotous and bloody a prison break as ever we’ve seen portrayed. Also Hume Cronyn plays the captain with such noxious villainy that the triumphant moment of the picture is when he is hurled screaming from the high guard-tower.

Big-framed, expressionless Burt Lancaster gives the chief convict a heroic mold, while Charles Bickford, John Hoyt, Jeff Corey and Sam Levene play other inmates genially. Art Smith is doleful as the doctor, Roman Bohnen fills the warden with distress and a large cast of actors and actresses play other “cons” and girl friends obviously. Jules Dassin’s steel-springed direction keeps the whole thing approriately taut.

“Brute Force” is faithful to its title—even to taking law and order into its own hands. The moral is: don’t go to prison; you meet such vile authorities there. And, as the doctor observes sadly, “Nobody ever escapes.”

???set and the motivations of some of its principal’s actions are somewhat vague, this story of a handsome, weak-fibered gent, who becomes tragically enmeshed in the deaths of his wife and paramour, comes off as wholly edifying and exciting fare.

Larry Ballentine is not limned in the conventional blacks and whites but in careful shadings of gray. A stockbroker on trial for the brutal killing of his beautiful gold-digging girl friend, Verna Carlson, he is, his counsel points out, guilty of “many derelictions” but not murder.

Recounting his version on the stand, Ballentine admits a loveless marriage, a previous affair and his love of wealth and position which his adoring spouse had literally bought for him. His liaison with Verna, he says, was honest. He had left his wife and an explanatory note and it was while en route to Reno and marriage that an auto accident killed Verna and he was injured. He had falsely testified to the police that the corpse was that of his wife and then had returned home to find that his wife had committed suicide. And his erstwhile partner, a former admirer of Verna’s, who was suspicious of her disappearance, had the police investigate.

Producer Joan Harrison, who seems to have profited from a long association with Alfred Hitchcock, and Director Irving Pichel have created mounting suspense which comes to a distinctly surprising and explosive climax as the jury brings its verdict.

Although that jury has only Robert Young’s testimony by which to judge his transgressions, his excellent portrayal of the harried broker is restrained and generally convincing. Susan Hayward, no stranger to this sort of assignment, is first-rate as the hard, scheming and ill-fated siren. Rita Johnson, as his desperate wife; Jane Greer, as a former flame, and Frank Ferguson, as the lawyer, contribute capable supporting performances. Jonathan Latimer’s pithy dialogue and Gordon McDonell’s tale form a creditable and sturdy framework for this engrossing entertainment.

BRUTE FORCE, screen play by Richard Brooks; from a story by Robert Patterson; directed by Jules Dassin; produced by Mark Hellinger for Universal-International. At the Criterion.
Joe Collins . . . . . Burt Lancaster
Captain Munsey . . . . . Hume Cronyn
Galiagher . . . . . Charles Bickford
Louie . . . . . Sam Levene
“Soldier” . . . . . Howard Duff
Dr. Walters . . . . . Art Smith
Warden Barnes . . . . . Roman Bohnen
Spencer . . . . . John Hoyt
McCallum . . . . . Richard Gaines
Ferrara . . . . . Frank Puglia
“Freshman” . . . . . Jeff Corey
Muggsy . . . . . Vince Barnett
Crenshaw . . . . . James Bell
Gina . . . . . Yvonne De Carlo
Ruth . . . . . Ann Blyth
Cora . . . . . Ella Raines
Flossie . . . . . Anita Colby
Kid Coy . . . . . Jack Overman
Tom Lister . . . . . Whit Bissell
“Calypso” . . . . . Sir Lancelot

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