Brute Force (1947)

Synopsis:

In order to be with his sickly wife (Ann Blyth, Mildred Pierce), troubled convict Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry) devises a daring jailbreak. However, the scheme goes awry when the prison is unexpectedly put on lockdown.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you’ve served your time, or when you’re dead!”

Though Brute Force was initially designed as a critique of America’s correctional system, this harrowing prison drama works better today as a stark entry in the classic film noir canon. The film is also a great showcase for actor Burt Lancaster, who easily dominates the movie with a fantastically brooding performance.

As mentioned in the book Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster by Gary Fishgall, shortly after his arrival in Hollywood in the mid 1940s, Lancaster signed not one but two non-exclusive film contracts: one with producer Hal B. Wallis (Casablanca), the other with producer Mark Hellinger (The Naked City).

Lancaster’s luck continued when Hellinger’s project (The Killers) materialized before Wallis’s (Desert Fury). In hindsight, it seems that Hellinger understood Lancaster’s raw talent better than Wallis. Lancaster’s first film for Hellinger turned the actor into a star. Brute Force was the second Hellinger-Lancaster project, and like their first collaboration, this bleak prison drama highlights Lancaster’s strengths as an actor.

This is perhaps the right time to confess that I’m not a big fan of prison movies. I tend to find these types of movies rather cliched and depressing. But once in a while I find a prison drama that I like. Despite my biases, I found the admittedly downbeat Brute Force to be a thoroughly compelling production — the film is splendidly directed by the talented Jules Dassin (Night and the City and Topkapi).

I can’t say I didn’t have any issues with the movie. For instance, I thought the main character’s reason for escaping was ridiculous — one phone call would have solved his problem. And the script, credited to future filmmaker Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood), relies on too many prison movie clichés. But I got so wrapped up in the storyline that I completely forgot all about the film’s imperfections.

Moreover, the supporting cast is simply fantastic. Hume Cronyn (Cocoon) stands out as the sadistic correction facility officer Capt. Munsey. Charles Bickford (The Big Country) is great as an older and pragmatic criminal. Also with Sam Levene (Sweet Smell of Success), singer Sir Lancelot (Ghost Ship) and making his film debut, Howard Duff (While the City Sleeps) as “Soldier.” “And as the women on the outside…” Ann Blyth, Yvonne De Carlo (Criss Cross) and Ella Raines (The Web).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Brute Force is genuinely gripping and suspenseful. It isn’t as good as Cool Hand Luke (1967) (perhaps my favorite prison movie) or Papillon (1973) (another great prison movie), but it is a brutal movie that fans of these types of movies will definitely enjoy. Needless to say, it’s a must-see film for fans of Burt Lancaster. B&W, 98 minutes, Not Rated.

8 responses to “Brute Force (1947)

  1. Brute Force was definitely revolutionary for the time, and to an extent still is. Mark Hellinger was unafraid in dealing with stories that were seen as “risky” by the major studios. Lancaster proved again he was a box office draw, and an incredible actor. The total rejection of the Hays Code was an equally brave move by Hellinger as well, even if Joe Breen gave him hell.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are absolutely right. Mark Hellinger was a gutsy producer. He died, suddenly, not long after making Brute Force. Imagine the movie he would have made had he not died so young!

      I should have added that Hellinger had a profound effect on Lancaster and his career. It was Hellinger who convinced the actor to produce his own movies. He also inspired Lancaster to use movies to shed light on important social issues.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes indeed, a good one, and quite brutal at times, which was interesting to see in a film from the ’40s. As you mentioned, lots of good supporting actors, and some great work from Lancaster as well. Dassin made four consecutive noirs between 1947 and 1950; the other three are also worth a look, if you haven’t seen them already.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never seen this one. I’m a big Burt Lancaster fan. He’s a very versatile actor. Brute Force is on my list. Like you, I’m very particular about prison films. Cool Hand Luke would be my favorite also. And I loved Papillon too. I was eight years old when I first saw it. It left a huge impression on me. Another one I would add to that canon–Escape from Alcatraz. I love a good procedural. Recently there are two prison movies that I liked a lot–Starred Up and A Prophet.

    Liked by 1 person

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