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."
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."|