“Brute Force” (1947) starring Burt Lancaster & Hume Cronyn

Gallagher [after learning that parole board hearings have been cancelled]: Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you’ve served your time, or when you’re dead!

Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is a serving a life sentence at a maximum security prison (Westgate Penitentiary). After being held in solitary, then hearing of a friend’s sudden death, he has had enough! Collins and Gallagher (Charles Bickford), the prison’s newspaper editor, plan an elaborate escape. The men in his cell say they’ll follow along. The head guard, Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn in his only villainous role), suspects something is up; he has informants all over. Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) holds authority on paper only; Dr. Walters (Art Smith) is a decent man who has been driven to alcoholism. These veteran actors came from NYC’s Group Theater (1931-1940) which followed the principles of Stanislavski. The film ends in a huge fight between guards and inmates, w/ gunfire, explosions, and many deaths!

Dr. Walters: Yes, Capt. Munsey. I’m just a very ordinary man. I get drunk on whiskey but you sir – you get drunk on power.

The acting is top notch; this is Lancaster’s 2nd movie after his debut opposite Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946). He had height, looks (traffic-stopping), and screen presence; he was discovered by producer Mark Hallinger (who died at just 44 y.o. from a heart attack). Cronyn (who hailed from the theater, like his wife Jessica Tandy) chews up the scenery as a sadistic wanna-be dictator. In one standout scene, he interrogates and beats the prison reporter, Louie (Sam Levene), while the music of Wagner (Hitler’s favorite composer) plays in the background. The musical score (composed by Miklos Rozsa) is considered to be even more compelling than the one he wrote for The Killers.

Spencer: Driving along with such a dream doll beside me, I figured myself a pretty lucky guy. Flossie had looks, brains, and all the accessories. She was better than a deck with six aces.

Yes, there are women here (unlike most jail-related movies); they appear in flashbacks. Spencer (John Hoyt- best known as Dr. Boyce in the series pilot of Star Trek: TOS) recounts a story of picking up a beautiful gambler, Flossie (Anita Colby). A mild-mannered bookeeper is in jail b/c he stole to please his wife (Ella Raines- who appeared in several noir films). Becker (Howard Duff) is former soldier dreaming of going back to Italy, where he left his lady love (Yvonne De Carlo). She co-starred w/ Lancaster in Criss Cross, which is a can’t miss noir. The woman in Collins’ life, Ruth (Ann Blyth), is as far from a femme fatale as you can get! This movie is on Amazon and YouTube (can see for free).

[1] Director Jules Dassin is brilliant with light, and sets the example for the French “new wave” of cinema. Lighting Burt Lancaster from the side, or from underneath, makes him and the other actors look almost surreal.

[2] The violence is not explicitly disclosed like in the present days, but the cruelty of Captain Munsey can be understood even by the most naive viewer.

[3] This powerful drama is totally uncompromising and provides a convincing account of what life is like in a prison which is being run in a particularly brutal and autocratic manner. The consequence for the inmates is that they live in an oppressive and overcrowded environment where hard labour, poor quality food and harsh treatment are the norm. Furthermore, they are also subjected to a cruel system which leads to many of them being abused, tortured or even killed

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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