Saturday, February 10, 2018

Brute Force (1947)

Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947) Westgate Penitentiary, in the middle on nowhere identifiable—Its "gates only open three times: when you come in, when you've served your time, and when you're dead!" One of the latter is going out now, a 62 year old prisoner forced to work in the prison's most dangerous area, what they call "the drainpipe." His cellmates in Cell R17 crowd around the the barred window of their too-small enclosure to watch. They are Stack (Jeff Corey), Spencer (John Hoyt)-in for gambling and grifting, Kid Coy (John Overman)-ex-boxer in for assault just moved, in taking the place of the guy who died, Becker "the Soldier" (Howard Duff)-in for murder (he took the rap for his lover), Lister (Whit Bissell)-in for embezzlement. Their main interest is because one of their own is coming back: mobster Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is coming out of solitary after 10 days after a stool pigeon planted a knife on him. The Chief Guard Munsey (Hume Cronyn) talks briefly to him, telling him he needs to show respect, to not be so hard, and to cooperate. Collins tells him what he wants to hear and he goes back to his cell.
The others crowd around him and give him a dry cigarette and a light and updates on the situation, including their plans for taking care of the stoolie who ratted him out (without going into specifics) and tell him that everything is okay. Collins spits out his response (in just the way you can hear Lancaster doing it): "Everything's okay? What's okay? Nothing's okay. It never was, and it never will be. Not till we're out. You get that? Out."
Brute Force may be the Citizen Kane of prison movies. Or at least a "Grand Gray-Bar Hotel." Produced by Mark Hellinger in the same hard-bitten style of his previous movie The Killers and written by a young up-and-coming script-writer named Richard Brooks.* Brute Force is a prison movie on the surface and a life-metaphor once you get below around drainpipe level. And, except for some motivational flashback sequences demanded by Hellinger so he could throw some female exploitation into the mix, it's directed by Jules Dassin with a noir attitude so bleak it approaches hysteria...then burns right through it. At the time, it was remarked for its violence, but it's not so much the violence—there are patches that are arresting—it's the vehemence, the hot and cold anger behind it, that is truly remarkable.
"Ya know, I was just thinkin'. An insurance company could go flat broke in this prison." Beyond the casual cruelty of the guards, the first outbreak of violence is the one that settles all matters about Collins' framing: in the prison work-room, that stoolie (James O'Rear) begins to suspect that a diversionary fight clearing the area of guards is a trap; it is, as he's cornered by Coy, Spencer, and Stack triangulating him with acetylene torches until he backs into a working industrial press. Nobody knows anything. Nobody saw anything. Just bad luck, "falling" into that press.
This makes a bad situation worse for the warden (Roman Bohnen); he's already been called on the carpet by some lackey of the governor threatening the man with his job if there are any more violent incidents; the guy's just a mouth-piece—he doesn't have any more answers than anybody else in the room does. But, threatening the warden with his job stings. He's been doing the job so long he doesn't know what else he would do without it. He's in a similar situation as the prison doctor (Art Smith), who's doing a job he hates (and self-medicates to get through it), but he's too old to do anything else. Everybody at Westgate has their own flavor of prison, it seems.

Except Munsey. The Chief Guard sits back during that bitch-fest with the governor's man and the warden and the doctor and just listens, biding his time, feigning concern, and solicitously acting as a go-between and interpreter ("I think what the doctor is saying..."), but not revealing his hand. That's because he's a spider, waiting for the prey to be weakened before he takes them out. The prison is his web and he has full control of it, pushing the guards, brutalizing the men, using all the methods at his disposal to have absolute power over the facility and anyone unlucky enough to enter its gates. He's not above any torture, physical or psychological, to maintain his control—at one point, he'll even beat information out of a prisoner (Sam Levene) while listening to Wagner on the phonograph (as if the ties to fascism weren't obvious enough)
That's the situation the prisoners of R17 are in. But there's added urgency: Collins is told by his lawyer that the girl who's waiting for him on the outside (Ann Blyth) needs an operation for cancer, but she won't unless Collins is with her. She doesn't know he's in prison and the lawyer is under strict instructions not to tell her. Collins has to work the angles, but his plan is to escape and never look back, and with ideas from his cell-mates, he hatches an idea—but it will mean being assigned to the very duty that killed the prisoner at the beginning of the movie—working "the drainpipe."
It's mean, it's tough, and it's violent and sometimes a little florid in its prison-yard dialog, but the part the filmmakers weren't crazy about (except the producer) was the insistence on interrupting the story with flash-backs involving the women in their lives. Producer Hellinger wanted female appeal and so the characters played by Hoyt, Bissell, Duff, and Lancaster briefly escape the prison walls (cinematiclly, of course) for scenes with the women in their pasts (played by Anita Colby, Ella Raines, Yvonne De Carlo and Blyth). The scenes don't do much as far as back-story—Hoyt's is even done without dialog and simply his voice-over—and the effect is jarring and removes suspense, pacing, and an ever-increasing feeling of doom that permeates the entire movie. Director Dassin had a substitute in mind—a surreal portrait ripped from a magazine in the cell that reminds all of them of "the girl outside." That was as sentimental as they wanted to get. 
When the escape attempt comes, it is filmed with all the energy, desperation, and hopelessness that can be bled out of the material, both visually and viscerally, like an amped-up war movie—the attempt is based on an attack strategy seen by Duff's "Soldier" during the second world war—and it all seems a bit like a suicide mission that quickly turns from gaining freedom to merely getting revenge and taking out as many guards as possible.
It is dark, but once the smoke clears, the fires are put out, and the dead carried through those implacable doors—ultimately, they make it out, ironically, only when they're dead—the film gets even darker, equating life itself with a prison. Jules Dassin was a master of the film-noir—a genre he wasn't that crazy about—but, he was interested in social justice and in making statements—and his turgid prison/war movie is one of the darkest of the type. It's no wonder tough guys in film-noirs wanted to avoid prison—Brute Force shows a world bleaker than bleak.
"Nobody escapes. Nobody ever really escapes."

* Yeah, if you know anything about movies, the name will be familiar: Brooks would go on to direct, starting with 1950's Cary Grant picture Crisis, work with Bogart on Deadline U.S.A. and Battle Circus, break the rock and roll barrier with Blackboard Jungle, and then veer from programmers (Take the High Ground!, The Last Hunt, The Professionals) to high profile prestige pictures (Lord Jim, the Brothers Karamazov, Elmer Gantry, Sweet Bird of Youth), to exploitation films (In Cold Blood, Looking for Mr. Goodbar). His last film was Fever Pitch in 1985.

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