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Review by IFQ Critic Todd Konrad

Among the variety of genres that the movies have offered us, one of the more stark yet popular choices has been the prison film. A number of classic films have been spawned from this genre including Midnight Express, The Shawshank Redepmtion, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, etc. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection, yet another forgotten classic has become available for new viewers to watch and appreciate in Jules Dassin’s Brute Force. Starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn , Brute Force is a hard-hitting indictment of the prison system as well as the greater social conditions perpetuated in modern society.

Brute Force is set within the concrete nightmare of Westgate Prison. The film’s tension lies within the contentious struggle between Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), world-weary inmate struggling to survive and Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), the sadistic captain of the guard who rules the prison with an iron fist. First introduced during a thunderous rainstorm, we first meet Collins as he is escorted back to general population after an extended stay in solitary confinement. He learns that one of his cell mates and friends recently died as a result of working in the unfinished drainpipe, ordered there by Munsey himself. This sequence is also our first glimpse of Munsey himself; flanked by a baton-carrying guard Cronyn imbues the captain with an effete, cultured swagger. Carrying no weapons himself, he holds his head proudly in the knowledge that he has no need to do so. His tactics and intimidating manner are all the weapons he needs and no prisoner is allowed to forget that.

Upon returning to his cell, Collins decides that enough is enough and vows to finally escape from Westgate. To aid in his plot, he calls upon his fellow cellmates Soldier (Howard Duff), Lister (Whit Bissell), Stack (Jeff Corey), Spencer (John Hoyt), Calypso (Sir Lancelot), and their newest friend Kid Coy (John Overton). Dassin portrays the camaraderie between these men in a manner unusual of standard prison fare. In the bulk of most prison movies, the main characters act essentially as lone wolf figures, men who do have friends but only out of necessity and rarely out of deeper loyalty. Yet Collins and his cellmates are portrayed as a solid, cohesive time thus simplifying the battle lines from every man for himself to a simpler dynamic of us and them. Aiding them in their cause is the prison’s drunken doctor, Dr. Walters (Art Smith) who sympathizes with the men in recognizing the absurd abuse they are forced to endure. Apart of the system but all too willing to point out its faults, Walters is the film’s moral center.

The plot picks up steam when Collins discovers a way to escape via the very same drain pipe used as a virtual death sentence by Munsey. Aided by other fellow inmates, including the prison’s de facto inmate leader Gallagher (Charles Bickford) Collins casts his die and decides to move forward with their plan. Along the way, the viewer gains an insight into the lives each prisoner left behind via a series of flashbacks showing each man with the woman he loves. By and large, these flashbacks are maudlin and not terribly insightful yet they succeed in both further securing our faith in these men as being good as well as providing visual breaks from the generic prison environment.

As heroic and photogenic as Lancaster is, the film’s true star lies with Cronyn. For film fans only aware of him as Jessica Tandy’s late husband and his lovable roles in movies like Cocoon and *batteries not included, Hume Cronyn’s portrait of the pseudo-fascist Munsey is a square punch to the jaw. Slight in frame, Cronyn still invests his villain with an absolute sense of intimidation. Munsey aspires to be the Nietzschean superman, affirmed in his belief that only the strong are worthy to survive. His disregarding affect is a mark of supreme self-confidence and righteousness. In perhaps the most chilling scene, Munsey personally tortures a prisoner in order to gain information on Collins’ plan. With Wagner bellowing throughout the room and displaying his taut physique while beating his victim to a pulp, Munsey subconsciously symbolizes pure fascism.

The allusions to Nazism are rampant and it is not much of a stretch to imagine Munsey as a concentration camp commandant, fully willing to exploit and torture those under his care while possessing the pure self-righteousness in order to do so. In a real allegorical way, the film transcends the prison genre altogether and becomes a statement of pure class struggle. In this light, the equations of prisoner equaling proletariat and guards equaling pure capitalism are clearly visible. Benefiting from their exploitation and control, it is in the guards’ and prison’s best interests to keep their wards broken. Yet the film becomes a Marxist critique as Dassin clearly sides with his proles as they attempt overthrowing this brutally unequal system and herald genuine freedom and equality. An tense, insightful rediscovery, Brute Force is a definite must see for fans of both prison films and social justice.

For more information on this title, go to www.criterion.com.

 
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