Brute Force (1947)

There are four to five hundred stories in the film noir city ― and around two dozen of them are sure-fire, indisputable, authentic classics. 

Brute Force is one of these.

Directed by Jules Dassin, it’s a story from stir ― strong men beat it out of each other as they go crazy behind prison walls. The manliness is multitudinous and the cruelty drives them to the end of their tethers.

Interests collide in a story that is both one man against the system, but also an indictment of the system itself. The cons are grim and the guard is grimmer. The result is a simmering and boiling mass of machismo, acted to within an inch of its life by a cast of glowering guys, who will do anything to survive amid the harsh conditions imposed on them.

Even outside of the canon, this is one of the greatest action, social and thrilling films of its day, with so much to commend the casual viewer, the film noir fanatic, and those generally interested in film. 

What gives Brute Force its class is probably its humanity. The Westgate Penitentiary where the film is set, is so overcrowded that we find much of the action filmed in a tiny cell, which on any given day can have six men cramped into it.

Around the men, violence and fear are the norm, although the one who seems to feel no fear at all, but seethes with rage instead, is the single-minded Joe Collins, played by Burt Lancaster.

It is without doubt one of Lancaster’s most defining roles, more so than most of his other film noir work from the 1940s.

Brute Force is also a defining work in the career of film noir director Jules Dassin. While it is true that Jules Dassin was attracted to communism and its ideals, the truth was that even with communists in Hollywood, ideology was not working its way into the movies. Movie heads and The Code saw to that.

However, when Jules Dassin had served his apprenticeship, some of which was done with Alfred Hitchcock, and was able to chose the movies he directed, he was able to make political choices at that point. Brute Force might in the eyes of the studio have been a film about a jail break. Which of course it is.

However it is the social message that elevates Brute Force and makes it the work of wonder that it is. 

Munsey - the original and maybe the best of all sadistic prison guards

Chief guard Captain Munsey is a petty dictator who glories in absolute power, and patrols with a sadistic sneer. After one infraction too many, Joe and his cooped up cellmates are put on to the dreaded drain pipe detail, which offers more cramped and disgusting conditions, and prompts an escape effort which looks like it may well turn into a bloodbath.

It’s violence all the way and in terrifying proportions. The direct inspiration for the bestial blow-up and acute prison disorder was the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’ (May 2–4, 1946) in which prisoners fought a futile two-day battle in favour of surrendering in the aftermath of a failed escape attempt.

Without doubt the most tragic tale in the naked prison, is that of the materialistic marriage of poor Cora Lister, and her weak husband, whose self-destructive end in prison is yet another spur towards the revolutionary violence that erupts in the microcosm of the prison; Cora Lister played by the sensational Ella Raines.

A prison message delivered between two white slices in Brute Force

Brute Force has some accordingly brutish scenes ― including the crushing of a stool pigeon under a stamping machine and the beating of a prisoner bound to a chair by straps. Film noir writer Eddie Muller wrote: "The climax of Brute Force displayed the most harrowing violence ever seen in movie theaters."

The warden of Westgate is portrayed as weak, and indecisive, and as such finds himself prey to political forces which of course do not care for the lesser items of humanity known as the inmates.

His second in command is played by Hume Cronyn as the soft spoken and psychotic Captain Munsey, a prison guard who takes so much delight in beating prisoners, that he plays his favourite music and strips to his t-shirt during the beatings.

As the movie rolls, the cast is also split into The Men on the Inside ― and The Women on the Outside. The four stories of the four male leads are told in flashback, and each one of them could have been a whole separate film noir.

The first of these stories is highly farcical, and provides the only comic relief in this grindingly sharp take of duress. It is the story of “Flossie” and tells of how one of the prisoners came to be deliciously tricked by an attractive female con artist.


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.

Then Ella Raines appears in the "fur coat" segment which is a variety of Cinderella turned film noir, in which we see meek accountant Whit Bissell turning to crime in his own way.



Cora Lister: [Flashback scene: Tom Lister is in his prison cell, recalling how he had given his wife Cora an exquisite fur coat] Tom... oh, Tom! It's the most beautiful thing in the whole world!

Tom Lister: It belongs on you.

Cora Lister: [Putting the coat on and admiring herself dreamily in the mirror] It makes me feel so... I don't know... like I was "somebody." Oh, Tom...

Cora Lister: [Suddenly coming to her senses] Where'd you get it? Where'd the money come from? Where'd you get it!

Tom Lister: Cora, I stole the money. I juggled the books and took three thousand dollars.

Cora Lister: You? You stole? Why?

Tom Lister: Darling, the way we were going, you wanting things - things you ought to have - and me strapped all the time... we were heading for a split-up. Don't you see? I just had to do it.

Cora Lister: All my life, the one thing I've really wanted is a fur coat. I CAN'T give it up. I WON'T, Tom!

Tom Lister: No, darling...

Cora Lister: But what if something should happen?

Tom Lister: Nothing that happens could matter, unless I lost you...

[Loud, ominous knocking on door is heard, returning the scene back to Tom's prison cell]


The next little tale from the women outside, features Yvonne De Carlo as an Italian girl during the war which the former soldier was in love with; and finally there is Burt Lancaster's story, as he tries to find money to pay his girlfriend's operation.

Brute Force isn’t just one of the best prison films ever made, it is a must-see film noir, with its ugly portrayal of a doomed society, about to implode in a raging sea of uproar and abandon. The misery is laid on thick, as is the tension, and there is even something brutal about the setting ― an almost modernist prison at times, with its panopticon tower, its cramped cells and its dehumanising processes.

And you may come for Burt Lancaster, but it is Hume Cronwyn as Captain Munsey that steals the show, marking out the dramatic territory for the sadistic prison guard, probably for all time. Listen to this super snappy exchange:

Warden A.J. Barnes: [In the Warden's office: things at the prison have gotten progressively worse] What's the answer to it? Are we going to have to keep every prisoner in ritual solitary? Other prisons must have the same problems, but they clear them up, keep things running smoothly.

Captain Munsey: We've been through difficult times before, Warden.

Warden A.J. Barnes: Oh, never like this. And McCollum is coming tomorrow. Why? Why can't he let me alone? Everything's gone wrong. I don't know who's to blame, but... I do know that every prisoner hates us.

Captain Munsey: Not us. Me. It's ME they hate.

Dr. Walters: [Sarcastically] I wonder why?

Captain Munsey: [to Dr. Walters] You put on a guard's uniform and see how much they love YOU.

Captain Munsey: [Directing his attention to the Warden] You talk to the prisoners over a loudspeaker. I talk to them with a club. You only make the rules. I have to enforce them.

Warden A.J. Barnes: Maybe it's the way you enforce them.

Captain Munsey: Maybe it is.

Everything about Brute Force is class, from the acting, to the dialogue, to the direction and the sets, and there is never a dull moment as the drama moves unflinchingly through the turbulence and madness, always inching closer to the explosion we feel is coming. There isn't an ounce of flab on this movie, and nothing is left to doubt.

Gallagher: It'll only make things tougher for everybody else.

Joe Collins: I don't care about everybody else.

Gallagher: That's cemetery talk.

Joe Collins: Why not, we're buried, ain't we? Only thing is, we ain't dead.




Joe Collins: Look, Gallagher, I know this drum's full of crackpots. One convict's gonna' buy his way out, another knows the governor's cousin. A third guy's even gonna' float out in a homemade balloon. But I'm not buyin' any pipe dreams. It can be done. It's been done before, and it'll be done again. It can be done here... by us.

Gallagher: Collins, if I ever put in with anybody, it'll be with you.




Chaplain: [to a pair of guards who have entered the chapel to keep an eye on "worshipping" prisoners] Shopping or buying?


Note that Charles McGraw is also in Brute Force, as Andy, uncredited. Character limit on tags / labels on this blog prohibited us from listing him as such.

The Film Noir of Jules Dassin


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