Directed by Jules Dassin
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 98 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono 1.0
Release Date: April 17, 2007
Review Date: April 8, 2007
After making a smashing movie debut in 1946 in the now-classic film noir The Killers, Burt Lancaster’s star was definitely on the rise with four film appearances in 1947. His role in Jules Dassin’s Brute Force cemented his standing as a major new star.
He stars as convict Joe Collins, a taciturn but respected inmate at the Westgate Penitentiary. Joe is desperate to get back to his wife (Ann Blyth) who’s dying of cancer and refuses to have an operation without Joe being by her side. In cell R17 with him are other men who have their own reasons for needing to break out of prison, some involving women left behind and others just for their dreams of freedom and starting new lives. The 98-minute film details their plans for escape and the deputy warden’s (Hume Cronyn) scheme to stop them.
Though one may have the impression that this is an action-filled prison movie, it’s actually much more of a character piece as we get inside the hearts and minds of several key men in the scenario. The action is restricted mainly to two key scenes: the murder of a patsy fairly early in the picture and, of course, the climactic escape which the film had been building toward. For the rest, we get flashbacks detailing the lives of several of the inmates prior to their incarcerations (all involving women who lead in one way or another to their arrests), and we get to see the politics at work behind the scenes as the heartless community leaders work to keep the problems within the walls of the prison hushed up no matter what it takes. Oscar-winning screenwriter Richard Brooks has fashioned some fascinating characters for Brute Force, but his tendency to jam into scenes some philosophizing for the sake of social comment occasionally seems abrupt and forced.
Director Jules Dassin comes to this world of brutal film noir after spending most of his career first doing programmers and then frothy star vehicles (Joan Crawford’s Reunion in France) and comedies (Charles Laughton’s The Canterville Ghost) at MGM. With the help of producer Mark Hellinger (who had produced The Killers and put Burt Lancaster under exclusive contract), Dassin stages the film brilliantly and offers a compelling, wholly involving look into ills of the prison system and the debilitating effect it has on men who find themselves there sometimes for the wrong reasons. The prison break, staged with hundreds of extras and with some of the most vivid camerawork imaginable (courtesy of the revered, Oscar-winning cinematographer William Daniels) , is one of the greatest set pieces in all of noir, and it propelled Jules Dassin onto a completely different directorial path for almost all of his future work.
And that cast! Besides the charismatic star turn by Lancaster, the film is filled with a who’s who of character actors all doing superb work: Howard Duff (his film debut), Charles Bickford, Hume Cronyn, Sam Levene, Whit Bissell, Jeff Corey, John Hoyt, Jay C. Flippen, the list goes on and on. Dassin gets gritty, believable performances from all of them, especially Cronyn whose soft-spoken sadist sends chills down one’s spine. Many of these actors never gave finer performances than they do in this picture.
The black and white picture is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1, slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s now familiar style. The transfer is very sharp and quite detailed with just the faintest hint of grain and only one lone scratch during the presentation. The contrast of this film noir couldn’t be better with deepest blacks and a superb grayscale that runs the gamut. There are very few films of this vintage that look as good as this one does. The film has been divided into 27 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is strong and clear, a fine example of sound design of the period. No hiss, pops, flutter, or crackle was present, and the Criterion engineers have obviously done the best they could with the sound elements at their disposal.
Compared to other recent Criterion releases, the extras are on the sparse side this time out. There is a very well done dual commentary by noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini that gives great background information on the makers of the film, the history of noir, and Dassin’s mastery of the genre in his first real attempt at it. They really cover all aspects of the film with surprising thoroughness.
Criminologist/author Paul Mason offers a fifteen minute lecture in anamorphic video on the history of prison films and where Brute Force ranks among the greats. Though the lecture also veers into more controversial territory concerning the appropriateness for prisons in a modern society, the specific comments about Brute Force are still illuminating.
The DVD concludes with a generous selection of film stills (including some fascinating ones with producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin interacting with the cast on the set) and the theatrical re-release trailer. If one has any doubts about the amount of effort Criterion has lavished on Brute Force to make it worthy of a first class DVD release, one glance at the damaged, soft, weakly contrasted trailer with tinny, hissy sound will quickly make one appreciate the look and sound of the actual film on the DVD.
Also included is a 36-page booklet with a film critique by critic Michael Atkinson, a lengthy appreciation of producer Mark Hellinger by Saturday Evening Post writer Pete Martin, and a fascinating series of telegrams between Head of the Production Code Joseph Breen and producer Hellinger as the two men jockeyed to keep the film’s toughness and brutality intact but compliant to the then-existing production code.
Brute Force may not seem quite as electrifying today as it did in 1947. We’re much more accustomed to graphic violence and sadistic characters in modern films. Given the restraints the filmmakers at the time had imposed upon them, however, the film makes its points powerfully and is therefore heartily recommended.