Brute Force

I’d never heard of this movie before the Criterion folk released their sparkling new transfer of it on DVD, another reason to say “God bless and keep the Criterion Collection.”

Jules Dassin, of course, in addition to this, directed the heist classic Rififi, one of the movies I watched in regard to Heist Movie, the maguffin of yesterday’s entry. Like Brute Force, Rififi was not available on DVD in 1997 — I had to watch a VHS copy of a transfer from a 16mm print. The copy I saw made Rififi look like it took place underwater, at night. Imagine my surprise when I saw the Criterion edition — it was bright, clear, dazzling — a completely different movie.

In any case, Brute Force is a stunner of a prison movie, with Burt Lancaster leading a crew of men on a massive, all-or-nothing prison break. Hume Cronyn is the smug, supercilious head guard who’s angling to replace the weak, hand-wringing warden.

Every now and then the narrative stops so that the main characters can sit and think about the women they’ve left behind. They’re all good eggs, you see, all led astray by scheming dames or by the vagaries of love. These scenes are comical in their compression and melodrama, trying to explain in a minute or less the whys and wherefores of the mens’ betrayals and weaknesses, but otherwise the tone is grim, blunt and bitter — they called the movie Brute Force and they weren’t kidding around.

Some points about the “issue” of prison reform are occasionally overstated, but then the final act comes along, forty solid minutes of suspense and action, stuffed with craven violence, noble sacrifice, righteous vengeance, kickass fights and stuff blowing up, an extended masterwork set-piece that compares favorably to the classic 25-minute silent heist in Rififi.

The theme of “society as prison,” where no one “deserves” to be there, the prisoners or the guards, remains as powerful as ever.  And the central drama of Brute Force, where a smug, sniggering lackey cynically manipulates events so that people get killed and he gains power, to better feed his fascist desires and lust for torture, is far more resonant today than it could have been in 1947.

Regarding The Wilhelm Scream: it is so-called because it is generally recognized that its first appearance is in 1953’s The Charge at Feather River, as screamed by a character named Wilhelm, but I could swear I heard a convict named Wilson use the same scream in Brute Force when his hands are blasted by a welding torch. Perhaps it should be called “The Wilson.”

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4 Responses to “Brute Force”
  1. craigjclark says:

    This is one of the Jules Dassin films I’ve been wanting to catch up with ever since I first borrowed Rififi and Night and the City from my local library. (The other two are Naked City and Theives’ Highway, both of which have also been put out by Criterion.) Were I made of money I’d up and buy the lot, but alas, I am not.

    Criterion is a harsh mistress. I love the care and attention they give to all of their releases. I just can’t buy them on a lark.

    • Todd says:

      Luckily, most serious video stores and libraries make it a priority to stock them — some even give them their own section, as though they were a genre. I don’t know how they did it, but they really did it, managed to change the shape of our collective film memory and create a “canon” of classics with nothing but their own impeccable taste (and a huge backlog of titles they own through the Janus Collection, of course) to guide them.

      • craigjclark says:

        I’ve talked to the person in charge of the video section at my library and he said that they have a standing order to acquire Criterion releases, but their funds are limited so there are some that slip through the cracks.

        I shudder to think how sparse my Luis Bunuel or Jean-Pierre Melville collection would be if it weren’t for Criterion.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Man Hate! Woman Love! Wilhelm Scream!

    Just saw this again for the first time in 3 or 4 years, and yeah… that sounded an awful lot like the Wilhelm scream to me (which I only recently became familiar with), so much so that I would’ve assumed that its first appearance was much earlier than 1953.

    Boy, once you hear that scream, you hear it everywhere. I heard it in “30 Days of Night” for crying out loud.

    — Kent M. Beeson