Saturday 2 March 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 36. Brute Force

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Brute Force
Director - Jules Dassin
Country - USA
Year - 1947
Runtime - 102 Minutes

Jules Dassin's bleak and sadistic prison film, Brute Force, is an arresting thrill ride that pits a host of desperate prisoners against Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), a cruel chief guard who is vying for the warden's position. After a handful of prisoners meet a grisly demise, Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) clamps down on the inmates privileges and this motivates Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) and his rag-tag group of cellmates to embark on a dangerous escape attempt.

Lancaster's striking performance as Collins (for another superb film with a stunning central performance from Lancaster take a look at The Swimmer) reveals a man at the end of his tether, longing for freedom and determined to be reunited with his wife, who is fighting her own losing battle against a life-threatening illness. Collins stoic and charismatic nature has a tendency to inspire those around him, particularly his cellmates, who are likewise willing to risk everything for one more taste of the world outside the prison walls.

Captain Munsey has a twisted agenda; his corrupt influence over the inmates and other guards is shown in a cruel interrogation scene and it is clear that he views the prisoners as worthless pawns in his quest for power. Whilst Lancaster is the undeniable star of the show, Cronyn is exceptional as his arch-nemesis, portraying the evil chief guard with a subdued menace that lurks under the surface of a predominantly calm and composed character. The tension between the two of them is palpable throughout and, although they share few scenes, their intense encounters positively crackle with energy as the mutual hatred they have for each other threatens to spill over into their actions.

Despite all of its barbarity, Brute Force is not without light relief. One of the inmates is a soulful character who regales his fellow prisoners with catchy rhymes that bring flavour and life to what may otherwise be an utterly soul-destroying environment. When the prisoner's divert each other with amusing tales of their derring-do prior to their incarceration we are sometimes treated to humorous anecdotes, particularly a tale involving a broad called Flossy who captured the heart of one of Collin's cellmates during an escapade in an unlicensed gambling house. These moments offer a welcome respite from the film's over-arching themes of brutality and abuse of power by offering a glimpse into the human side of these law-breakers; a side which is sadly lacking amongst many of the inhumane guards.

By embodying many of the hallmarks of a film-noir, Dassin brings this gripping tale to life with stylistic flourishes that depict the horrors of imprisonment with an unnatural beauty. Shadows and lighting play a huge role in setting the ambience, as well as emphasising the refined compositions that make the picture so alluring. Almost all of the flashback scenes offering an insight into the reasons behind the incarceration of key characters feature dazzling encounters with enchanting dames and the dialogue snaps with a vicious and highly memorable bite, making it feel like certain lines are delivered by quick-witted detectives trying to outmaneuver their foes with clever wordplay.

Like most prison films the crux of the plot is a climactic escape scene that encompasses all of the familiar tropes - double crossing, valiant self-sacrifice, and unexpected complications - but does so in a novel fashion that circumvents the usual set pieces to deliver an intense and unpredictable finale that bristles with an overwhelming tension. Dassin's direction is taut and efficient throughout and the fast-paced editing in this sequence ramps up the suspense with repeated glimpses of clock hands as the time to escape looms ever nearer. At the fatal hour it is clear that the odds are against Collins and his men but you will inevitably be rooting for their success as they make their brave leap into the unknown.

Brute Force doesn't feel like a film that was first released as long ago as 1947 - this brutal depiction of incarceration has retained its formidable impact as a chilling indictment against the prison system. It is an undeniable masterclass in suspense that remains a highlight of the genre even seventy years after its inception and its unflinching portrayal of the abuse of power within the prison system place it as a picture far ahead of its time. The memorable characters and beautiful cinematography add credence to the film's pulp leanings, asserting its position as a thrilling picture that is executed incredibly well by a talented cast and crew who deliver a powerful and truly unforgettable experience.

If you take the time to watch Brute Force then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

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