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"Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you've served your time, or when you're dead!"
- from Brute Force
Producer Mark Hellinger had wanted to make a prison movie for almost a decade, and when he read an article by a former convict, the basic story of Brute Force (1947) began to take shape. Hellinger hired San Francisco Examiner reporter Robert Patterson to come up with the scenario and then brought in Richard Brooks to write the screenplay. A young screenwriter, Brooks had already worked on two of Hellinger's productions: The Killers (1946, uncredited) and Swell Guy (1946). Hellinger also reunited Burt Lancaster with two of his costars from The Killers: Sam Levene and Charles McGraw. Brooks and Lancaster clearly got along. At one point, Brooks told Lancaster to get himself a copy of the Sinclair Lewis novel Elmer Gantry, as Brooks was determined to turn it into a film. Though it took thirteen years, he and Lancaster did make that picture, and both received Academy Awards for their work.
Part film noir and part Hollywood "message movie," Brute Force is filled with images of extreme, almost psychopathic violence. In the prison workshop, Lancaster's buddies take revenge on a stool pigeon, cornering him with lit blowtorches and pushing him into the giant press. An informer is strapped to the front of a railroad car as it hurtles towards manned machine guns. The prison captain tortures an inmate with a rubber hose while blaring Wagner from the record player.
Hume Cronyn's portrayal of the sadistic Captain Munsey is one of the highlights of his film career. Of course, the idea of a final physical confrontation between the athletic Lancaster and the wispy Cronyn was a bit hard to imagine as a real contest. As Cronyn recounts in his autobiography: "Burt, who had at one time been a circus acrobat, was in magnificent physical condition and weighed about two hundred pounds. He could in reality have picked me up with one hand and wrung me out like a washrag. As a concession to the casting and the totally unbelievable match, it was agreed that before the struggle began, Burt's character should be shot and wounded. Even so, Julie [Dassin] staged one of the most murderously filthy fights ever photographed, so filled with kicks to the groin, eye gouging and karate chops that when the scene was cut together, it was considered altogether too violent for the public and portions of it were eliminated."
Though ostensibly an indictment of a corrupt prison system, what emerges most clearly from the film is the sense of utter hopelessness. According to one of Lancaster's biographers, "as a postwar parable, the movie is deeply sad. The Nazi-type Captain Munsey is vanquished only to have the heroes who killed him either dead or still in prison." As the prison doctor (and the film's moral compass) repeatedly intones, "Nobody escapes, nobody ever escapes."
The only respite from the film's unrelenting brutality comes in the four romanticized flashbacks. At night, after the inmates use their blowtorches to push James O'Rear into the machine press, the four cellmates reminisce about the women who, unwittingly or not, put them in prison. Whit Bissell recalls his wife, Ella Raines (Hail the Conquering Hero, 1944), for whom he juggled the company's books in an effort to get her a mink coat. John Hoyt bitterly remembers con woman Anita Colby and the way she played him for a fool. (Colby, a former fashion model and advertising executive, was the inspiration for Grace Kelly's character in Rear Window, 1954.) Howard Duff thinks back to his Italian beauty, Yvonne De Carlo. She had killed her own father in an attempt to protect Duff, but when the authorities arrived, it was Duff who nobly took the fall. Finally, Lancaster thinks of his kind, wheelchair-bound girlfriend, Ann Blyth (Veda in Mildred Pierce, 1945). To get his hands on the money Blyth needs for an operation, Lancaster and his gang pull one more job, and Lancaster ends up in jail.
Though today she is chiefly remembered for her roles in The Ten Commandments (1956) and the TV series The Munsters, at the time De Carlo was one of Universal's most captivating starlets. And according to her autobiography, her charms were not lost on the film's star. "I had no doubts that Burt knew exactly what he wanted, and at the moment it was me." Though Lancaster had recently been married, he and De Carlo went together to a cocktail party and then out to dinner. Lancaster took the twenty-four-year-old back to her home, and there, outside, beneath an oleander bush and on top of De Carlo's mink coat, they made love. According to De Carlo, "It was so spontaneous and explosive, I thought I was playing a scene from a blazing romantic novel. Talk about being swept away!" Their "mutual fling" was short-lived, though as one can see in De Carlo's recollection, quite memorable.
According to Dassin, the flashback sequences were not his idea and though he vigorously objected to their inclusion in the film, he lost that battle (presumably to Hellinger). Lancaster too felt that the romantic subplot detracted from the intended effect. But as he said in a 1973 interview, "this was all part of Hollywood then. The emphasis was always on the love story. . . . They believed that what was known to have worked well at the box office should not be tampered with."
Dassin and Lancaster's concerns aside, the film does work, and part of the film's power comes from the exceptional music and photography. Miklos Rozsa's dramatic score gives the whole film an almost operatic quality, while the photography of William Daniels, which once made Garbo look otherworldly, here paints a crisp and all-too-real prison world, from which not even a soft light can escape.
Though the Production Code Office demanded several cuts to soften what it called the film's "excessive" brutality, the film's depiction of violence remained potent, and many critics felt that Hellinger had stepped over the line. Responding to these critics, Lancaster commented: "If Daumier knocks off a sketch of a rat eating out a woman's eye, by God, you say it's art, but if Joe Blow writes it for Hellinger, you say it's obscene. I don't get it."
Producer: Mark Hellinger
Director: Jules Dassin
Screenplay: Richard Brooks
Art Direction: John De Cuir, Bernard Herzbrun
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editing: Edward A. Curtiss
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Burt Lancaster (Joe Collins), Hume Cronyn (Capt. Munsey), Charles Bickford (Gallagher), Yvonne de Carlo (Gina), Ann Blyth (Ruth), Whit Bissell (Tom Lister), Ella Raines (Cora Lister), Sam Levene (Louie Miller), Jeff Corey (Freshman), John Hoyt (Spencer), Jay C. Flippin (Hodges), Sir Lancelot (Calypso), Frank Puglia (Ferrara), Howard Duff (Soldier).
By Mark Frankel