May 9, 2007

Brute Force: Was prison ever like this?


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): **½ (nostalgia and noir buffs may want to add a star)

Admiring, as I do, so many of the films of Jules Dassin, I find myself surprised that Brute Force (which I had never seen until the arrival of this new Criterion release) does not rank as highly. Though I can understand its being hailed for style, believability and originality in its time, time is the very thing that has left this film in the dust. Despite good performances and superb black-and-white cinematography, the writing and direction are so doggedly of their time and often overly didactic in terms of calling attention to class/economic differences and the dangers of unbridled power that, finally, it's hard not to snicker now and again. When, toward the end, what looks like the entire prison population is given some bad news, their reaction, I swear, sounds exactly like that of Oprah's audience when it learns something sad. (The prisoners have deeper voices, of course.) Granted, this was 1947, yet the entire penitentiary appears to house but a single black inmate. And he sings. Any hint of homosexual behavior is quite veiled, in the character of the villain, 'natch, well-played by a relatively young Hume Cronyn.

As much as I enjoy seeing Yvonne De Carlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines and Anita Colby (the last, less known to many of us, is especially fun), the flashbacks that introduce us to their characters are clunky and unnecessary, except to add some extra sentimentality—and women—to the mix. We see the gals only once, just long enough to establish a single characteristic (self-sacrificing, sickly, grasping and venal), and then it's back to the boys. That these guys are played by Burt Lancaster, Charles Bickford, Jeff Corey, Howard Duff and other fine actors, is quite a help in passing the time, of course. The movie builds a good head of steam toward the climax, as the raison d’etre of many, if not most, prison films finally draws near. Now, events pile on top of each other with speed, irony and surprise. (Lancaster has one particularly strong verbal moment that is still able to shock; back in 1947 it must have elicited a lot of good gasps.) Comparisons may be odious, but most of us have by now seen so many prison flicks of various quality that Brute Force—despite its title—seems almost quaint.

The Criterion transfer is, of course, terrific, and the DVD offers a decent assessment of the film from film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini. While I didn’t agree with everything said, they did make me think a bit, and that's always appreciated.

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Posted by cphillips at May 9, 2007 4:35 PM
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