BRUTE FORCE (Jules Dassin, 1947)

A sentimental, arty prison drama written by Richard Brooks from a story by Robert Patterson, Brute Force has its heart in the right place. It takes a stand against American fascism, which it (correctly) sees as flourishing inside the U.S. penal system. But Westgate Penitentiary may be more special than representative. The set is gorgeous and, damn, if that inmate Calypso doesn’t come up with a song for every occasion. In a real prison, this perpetual warbler would be the first to be offed by prison-mates.
     With its fake intensity, this is a ridiculous film whose tormented souls remind me of the poetical soldiers in Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun (1945); everyone has such feelings! Brooks must feel we viewers might go stir-crazy “inside,” so he devises ten times-more-ridiculous flashbacks—vignettes—for most members of a single crammed cell. How does sense fly out the window when there isn’t a window?
     This film trivializes any number of serious issues, including the prevailing right-wing political winds in postwar America. Burt Lancaster stars as Joe Collins, who masterminds a prison escape that ends in a mound of corpses, sort of like Hamlet. Given his limited acting ability, Lancaster is more or less the same whether playing a live man or a corpse—although, of course, director Jules Dassin has already milked the metaphor of the inmates, including Collins, being “buried alive,” that is, the living dead.
     “Why do they do it?” the philosophical prison doctor asks over and over at film’s end after reciting a litany of U.S. prison breakout failures. In less articulate language, the inmate to whom Dr. Walters is speaking cites freedom’s lure.
     Hume Cronyn plays the sadistic head guard, Munsey, who likes parking his ass in the warden’s chair. No comment.

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