Brute Force

Jack Overman, John Hoyt, Whit Bissell, Jeff Corey, and Burt Lancaster in Brute Force (dir. Jules Dassin, 1947).

Hume Cronyn wields his ... authority.

Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!

As shot by cinematographer William Daniels (Queen Christina, The Shop Around the Corner, Winchester 73), the prison settings in Brute Force are some of the most oppressively gritty-looking surfaces ever committed to film. Even in Captain Munsey's office, with its arrogantly fascistic display of "high culture," you can almost smell stale sweat. Hume Cronyn's Munsey embodies a macho aesthetic that stands both in contrast and in parallel to Burt Lancaster's Joe Collins: both are figured by their muscles, Collins metaphorically and synecdochically (he's all muscle) and Munsey ironically and metonymically (his muscles are invisible when he's in uniform, but when revealed they are an index of his totalitarian abuse of power).

Dassin never judges his inmates for the crimes they have committed, even the ones they commit against other inmates. The fierce system of justice they apply is neither better nor worse than the one that put them behind bars: it is simply one more register of the film's noir determinism. The violence throughout is horrifying, especially when convicts use blowtorches to back a rat (the human kind) into a huge letterpress, and when another rat is strapped to a moving switching car and shot point blank.

John Hoyt's Spencer has my favorite line: "I wonder who Flossie is fleecing now."

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