The 1947 prison drama Brute Force has a title that possesses a wide-range of applications. It forms the crux of the film’s thematic focus of the prison edifice, which despotic head guard Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) views as an arena where might definitely makes right. However, while this sets up a semi-interesting discussion on the role of power in society, Brute Force’s analytical gaze on the prison is largely facile.
The film is far more functional when it disavows any thematic grandiosity, and simply observes its prison characters, who are all so manly that they probably sported chest hair during preschool. Chief among these crusty cons is Burt Lancaster as the lead character Joe, an irascible thug hellbent on breaking out of the big house. Lancaster’s imposing, highly physical performance sets the tone for Brute Force’s focus on the inmates’ psyches, and his mentality towards life is another area where the film’s title feels applicable. It is in characters such as his that Brute Force finds its footing, and gradually becomes quite compelling.
Brute Force is a film that feels dangerously claustrophobic, an appropriate tone considering its setting. In the opening shot we are introduced to the prison where the action will take place – a hulking, fiendish-looking structure, whose draconian aura is even enhanced by the presence of a drawbridge. Still, despite this medieval exterior, life inside the walls is not insufferable. The men benefit from the kindly nature of Warden A.J. Barnes (Roman Bohnen) and the physician Dr. Walters (Art Smith). Trouble lurks though around every corner, with some of the men looking for an early-release and Captain Munsey looking to solidify his influence and climb the social ladder of the prison. This sets up a powerful dynamic, not to mention a climax that is brutal even by today’s standards.
The nexus of the film is Burt Lancaster’s intense, seething Joe, who refuses to give in to Munsey’s strict authoritarianism. We are introduced to this wily inmate after he comes back from solitary confinement, and right away it’s clear that he harbors plans for getting out of jail early that don’t involve good behavior. Joe shares a tiny, dismal cell with five other men, who all agree over the course of the story to become his accomplices, although some appear more trustworthy than others.
Writer Richard Brooks – who would go on to direct searing films like In Cold Blood and Looking for Mr. Goodbar – imbues each of Joe’s cellmates with intriguing psycho-sexual depth, although some of the noir-trappings revel abrasively in misogyny. For example, the only decoration that the men have in their cell is a poster of an alluring woman, who they playfully refer to as a real lady. This image of a smoldering temptress triggers flashbacks for the men, where they recount how they each ended up being incarcerated.
The source of each man’s downfall is, unsurprisingly, a woman – although thankfully there is variance in how each woman is characterized by Brooks and director Jules Dassin. That being said, the women of Brute Force fit predominantly into noir’s binary perspective on females, and are depicted as either ruthless femme-fatales or suffering altruists.
This is not to say that these sequences aren’t fun, with Brooks’ pulpy dialogue being particularly notable. Nowhere outside of this genre are you going to hear lines like: “My dice were hot and she kept them that way.” However, they do date the story, confining it to being a pure genre exercise. Similarly, the acting of the main cast contains the type of stylized mannerisms that were commonplace pre-Brando, and makes the story feel incongruent with modern-day expectations. This type of theatrical emoting isn’t universal across the board, with Lancaster eventually reaching a level of animalistic rage that feels genuine and primal. However, other members of the cast, such as Roman Bohnen’s Warden, come off as artificial, portraying a character so spineless that to compare him to a jellyfish would insult to the bravery of jellyfishes.
This artifice and grandiosity also affects the film’s meditation on power. This failing is centralized in Hume Cronyn’s Captain Munsey. While, Cronyn gives an extremely confident performance, there are moments where the script and direction portrays Munsey as over the top. This is particularly true during a scene in his office, where Munsey is stalking around in a wife beater and polishing the barrel of a massive, phallic-like firearm. Thankfully, scenes such as these are few and far between, and by the time the film’s climax rolls around Dassin is able to refocus his film, and craft a scene that is an ode to pure, muscular athleticism. These are the points where the film is at its best, when everyone stops talking and starts doing.