155) Brute Force (1947) Dir: Jules Dassin Date Released: June 1947 Date Seen: May 31st, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
If you were to watch Jules Dassin's Brute Force as the A-picture in a double feature with Don Siegel's Escape From Alcatraz, or most any other prison movie, you would be startled by the former film's uncanny Utopian vision of prison life. While Siegel and Dassin's films both strive to show the dehumanizing effects of living in a maximum security prison, Dassin's film makes the prisoners seem completely cliqueless, loyal to each other to a fault and all of one enlightened mind. They have a code of honor, one that they all respect and actively enforce--the scene where a snitch gets punished is not only beautifully paced but wonderfully unreal in its blind faith in man's willingness to beat up another man to show solidarity to a third man.
In that sense, Dassin goes more than a little over the top in his defense of prisoners. He treats them like bluecollars that all wound up in prison for the wrong reasons, mostly screwy situations involving dames, and members of a seriously repressed union, to boot--when news breaks that evil Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn) has been appointed the new warden, the prison-yard pelts him with cries of "Scab!"
His worst offense in overzealously melo-dramatizing the plight of his super-tolerant working class jailbirds isn't even having Calypso (Sir Lancelot; this is the actual actor's stage name, I shit you not), the only ethnic cast member in the film, get along just fine with all the other curiously sedate white guys but rather the Howard Beale-like speeches he gives Doc Walters (Art Smith). You almost expect peals of thunder to accompany each accusation of mistreatment he levels at Munsey and his supervisor--hands-down, Walters' best line has to be when he stares down Munsey with this line: "I'm a very ordinary man. I get drunk on whiskey. What do you get drunk on: power?"
The big breakout attempt at film's end makes up for a lot of that kind of bleeding heart sentimentality thanks in no small part to Burt Lancaster's hulking performance. You can see a potent mix of paralyzing fear and leery determination overtake him the moment Walters tells him that Munsey knows about his imminent escape. When he's struggling to make it to the guard tower to take Munsey out, you get the feeling of desperation that Dassin mistakenly tries to dredge up from foolhardy well wishes and then some. Lancaster's only in the film for a short period of time, but in it, he really rescues the film.