Released June 30th, 1947, Jules Dassin’s (Rififi) Brute Force opened and took audiences and critics by storm. The film, a prison break picture, would startle and terrify as it depicted life inside prisons as one of moral decay, not because of the men inside but because of their treatment at the hands of their caretakers. In defiance of the Production Code Administration, Brute Force featured the violent deaths of guards by prisoners, yet, and this is largely the point being made by story designer Robert Patterson, screenplay writer Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood), and Dassin, it’s not the fact that that the death occurs that shocks, but how well deserved it is. Even decades later, Brute Force shatters expectations as the gritty noir presents a version of life inside prison as not one of redemption or rehabilitation, but of malicious punishment with no hope of returning to society. After an extensive two year process of restoration, Brute Force joins the Criterion Collection so that modern audiences can once more endure the horrors of Westgate Penitentiary under the heel of Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn).
Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) has had enough of prison life. It’s not that Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) makes his or the rest of inmates’ lives difficult, it’s that Collins made a promise to the woman he loves that he’d be back and he wants to keep that promise. Outside of his sentence, what keeps him in prison is the watchful eye of the warden’s second in command, Captain Munsey. To the unaware, the tight-buttoned, soft-spoken Munsey is as non-threatening as they come, frequently opting for a softer touch to earn compliance from the inmates. But Collins knows differently that Munsey is a sadist wearing velvet gloves, taking delight in pain however he can create it. Knowing that time is running out to return to his love, Collins devises a plan to get free, but to do it will require trusting not just his stalwart cellmates, but others as well.
It’s not unheard of, in the history of storytelling, for a film not just to explore the darker sides of humanity, but to do so via the prison system. There is the heroic nature of The Great Escape (1963), the human drama of The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and the exploration of dignity with The Last Castle (2001). These films, and many others, often utilize prisons as an allegory for the ways in which humanity treats its vulnerable. If one truly believes that you can judge a society by the way it treats those perceived as the least of its members, an exploration of our prison system is a damning spot to begin. Without getting into the weeds, prisons are, by and large, populated by individuals who likely belong there. Certainly, as the laws change, so should sentencing or continuance of punishment, but if a person does break the law, a just society must employ a means of discipline. Ergo, how one treats the individual in the midst of discipline matters. Brute Force obviously feels this way as an early conversation between Barnes, Munsey, Dr. Walters (Art Smith), and the irate owner of the prison is based on Barnes’s belief that they should be doing everything they can to rehabilitate the inmates whereas the owner wants profits. Brief though it is, this conversation sets up within the narrative the very real threat of the removal of Barnes (a just man unsure how to continue his duty) as well as the subtext of inmates being disregarded as human once entering the gates. In a more modern sense, consider the boat sequence in The Dark Knight (2008) wherein The Joker (Heath Ledger) has rigged two ferries (one filled with convicts, the other average civilians) to explode and instructs each vessel that their future depends on their choice regarding the other boat. Even if one were to employ The Trolley Problem to work a way out, there is still no way to make that call without casualty. Back to Brute Force, the same notion is at work: whose lives matter more: the inmates, the guards, the staff, or the rest of humanity? If we infer a hierarchy, then we as a society are lost. Given the fact that Brute Force is considered a premiere noir, Dassin and the creative team believed that we already were.
There’s a lot that’s fascinating about Brute Force that runs tangential to the notion of inmate treatment. As presented here, Collin’s cellmates — the residents of cell R17 — are by no means innocent, though, via the few backstories we receive in short segments throughout the film, none of the men are truly horrible. They may be thieves and liars, but none of R17 are truly the scum of the earth. Patterson and Brooks even go so far as implying that the crimes we know of were partially out of love for another, suggesting that while their punishment is punitive, they are not worthy of anything corporal. Yet, when we meet Collins, he’s returning to his cell after working in a drainpipe outside the walls of the prison, an unsafe and unsanitary work station that seems to serve zero purpose other than to keep inmates busy. To drive this point home, as Collins walks in the rain with the yet-to-be-fully-introduced Munsey, Collins is told of the death of a friend who worked alongside Collins in the drainpipe. Munsey seems to take a strange pleasure out of giving Collins the news and, as we quickly learn, this may be the very thing that inspires Collins’s escape. The rest of the film is like this where the inmates treat each other with a deserved respect whereas those who help Munsey are treated more harshly. Similarly, the guards are mostly respectful to the inmates, with a few even being shown to have a distaste for Munsey’s violent approach. Interestingly, this may be less the doing of writers Patterson and Brooks and more of a requirement from the Production Code Administration who oversaw the release of films similar to the manner of today’s MPAA. Within the liner notes of the Blu-ray is the reproduced correspondence between producer Mark Hellinger and PCA rep Joseph Breen which states that having members of the staff be repulsed by Munsey is required for aspects of the violence to pass. This is, perhaps, more damning of society’s need to present law enforcement as inherently good and pure whereas Brute Force is more interested in something more true, even if nihilistic.
Which brings us fully to the Criterion release itself. As mentioned above, the liner notes include not just the usual essay from a prominent critic, but other materials which may enhance the viewing experience. The essay from Michael Atkinson which opens the pamphlet explores whether or not Brute Force is itself an exploration of a WWII Nazi concentration camp, drawing parallels between setting, costuming, and the relative chivalrous nature of our “heroes.” Further, Atkinson pulls from Dassin’s Jewish background and his soon-to-come blacklisting from Hollywood in his analysis of the film. In combination with the aforementioned correspondence and the 1947 profile of Hellinger, the liner notes are not something to be skipped over when exploring the supplemental materials. Additionally, there are two videos included on the Blu-ray: (1) an interview from 2007 with Paul Mason exploring the resonance of Brute Force at length and (2) an exploration of the variety of acting choices made by the cast via film scholar David Bordwell. Of the two, Mason’s portion is far more interesting as he dissects and discusses Brute Force in a deeper manner than Atkinson does in his writing, making it an ideal video for those seeking to increase their education and appreciation for the film. What is not discussed either in the supplemental on-disc materials or within the liner notes is the restoration process undertaken by TLEFilms Film Restoration & Preservation Services, Germany branch, which took over two years to complete. The only notice of their work is provided before the film begins via two cards explaining the history of the film reels and what was needed to create the restoration. From the description alone, the story of the restoration is fascinating and seems worthy of its own exploration within the supplemental materials somewhere in more depth. If Criterion is going to engage services to restore this and other works, including the information on that process can only speak more on why the preservation process is so important, not just to Criterion but to the arts in general.
It is suggested via the profile on Hellinger that Brute Force made an immediate impact on each audience who watched it. Even decades later, the emotional wallop lands just as powerfully today. Especially as COVID-19 continues to ravage countries and the question of what to do with inmates not yet infected by their cellmates is ignored, the idea of how we treat those in our care becomes even more pressing. What is our moral obligation to those who may have, in some manner or another, shunned society’s rules? Do they deserve to die so that others outside the walls may live? What makes their lives suddenly less precious or less worthy? If we take Atkinson’s analysis to heart that Dassin crafted Brute Force to explore Nazi-controlled prison camps metaphorically, then we better understand the Nazis treated their prisoners and how they viewed them. Is that really the kind of company we want to keep? Brute Force very plainly states its own answer to the question, one which we continually to struggle with today.
Brute Force Special Features
- New 4K digital restoration by TLEFilms Film Restoration & Preservation Services, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- Audio commentary from 2007 featuring firm-noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini
- Interview from 2007 with Paul Mason, editor of Captured by the Media: Prison Discourse in Popular Culture
- Program from 2017 on Brute Force’s array of acting styles featuring film scholar David Bordwell
- Still gallery
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- An essay by film critic Michael Atkinson, a 1947 profile of producer Mark Hellinger, and rare-correspondence between Hellinger and Production Code administrator Joseph Breen over the film’s content
Available on Blu-ray and DVD September 8th, 2020.
For more information, check out the Brute Force Criterion website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.