The Great Depression was a time of mass poverty and unemployment in America. Growing up in New York, and after taking part in local theatre groups and circus acts, a young Burt Lancaster decided to join the circus. He formed an acrobatic partnership with long term collaborator Nick Cravat. After joining the US Army during World War II, Lancaster was enlisted to one of the special military organisations tasked with entertaining the troops. The uncertainty at the end of the war, coupled with a nation trying to forget the horrors of conflict, sparked the emergence of Film Noir. It’s the perfect genre for a strong and powerful man like Lancaster who exuded an air of charismatic menace. Brute Force, directed by Jules Dassin, was a perfect step on his rise to stardom.
Joe Collins (Lancaster) is one of six prisoners crammed into a cell in Westgate Penitentiary. The men dream of seeing their loved ones again on the outside, but the sadistic Chief of Security Munsey (Hume Cronyn) casts a pall over the institution. As conditions worsen, his control tightens despite the efforts of prison doctor (Art Smith). They hatch a desperate plan to break-out and release all the inmates. Despite the help of Gallagher (Charles Bickford), the prison facilitator, they struggle to get everything together in time. When it’s clear that Munsey has informants and is onto their plan, it’s now or never.
Dassin manages to portray the sense of claustrophobia and helplessness of prison life, contrasting it with the outside lives of the Joe and his cell mates. Hume Cronyn’s Munsey epitomises the charm and malice of a SS officer as he ruthlessly presides over the jail with an iron fist. Whilst the war is only vaguely eluded to in one flashback, it looms over the entire film. Brute Force is as much a prison camp drama as a escape film. There are great performances from Lancaster and Bickford, with all the jailbirds subtly adding to the growing sense of jeopardy. Brute Force is a strong and powerful film noir with echoes that never quite fade.
Brute Force is released on Dual Format DVD & Blu-ray by Arrow Films on September 15.