Before starting the iCheckMovies noir list, I had never heard of Jules Dassin, but he is quickly becoming one of my all-time favourite classic Directors. While I found Naked City just “ok”, Night and the City and Du rififi chez les hommes are in my humble and uneducated opinion two of the classiest, most polished film-noir tales I have experienced, so I was very much looking forward to Brute Force. With Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn in leading roles, my anticipation was through the roof. The film had such a pedigree I was expecting a masterpiece, and while it fell short, it was still a blinding demonstration of the precision I have come to expect from Dassin.

The film deals with the delicate balance of power between prison inmates and officials. Lancaster plays Joe Collins, a discontent prisoner determined to escape so that his wife will have a life-saving operation, and Hume Cronyn plays his opposite, the chief warden of the prison, Captain Munsey. As the film progresses Collins uses his respect to create an escape plan with fellow inmates, while Munsey uses his own, more sadistic methods to extract information and manipulate the prisoners to his own ends. The film shows the two men as they follow paths which will inevitably cross and end violently.

Everyone in the cast performs brilliantly without exception (many of the actors learned their trade in Strasberg’s Group Theatre – advocates of “the method”) and Hume Cronyn is simply phenomenal. His warden character is a calm, but sadistic beast of a man, who we see beat another prisoner to within an inch of his life under the cover of loudly played Wagner, and prompting another to commit suicide by telling them lies about their families on the outside. It’s all delivered with effortless style and with Cronyn’s unique, calm voice he manages to make Munsey one of the most memorable villains ever.

It’s all shot and directed beautifully, with some very dark, tense scenes (especially when we see Cronyn at work) and is finished off with a brilliant, bloody final showdown between the prison officials and the inmates.

In my opinion, the screenplay itself is a little weak. The main driving force behind the escape and the thing that kickstarts the plot, is that Collins’ wife is dying of cancer. She can be cured by an operation, but she chooses not to have it unless Collins is by her side, because “life is not worth living without Joe”. It’s a little unrealistic and overly sentimental, but I guess if she said “I’ll have the operation so I am still alive when Joe comes out of prison” we wouldn’t have had much of a film on our hands. Also, while the characters are well written and generally fleshed out fully, sometimes they are filled-out a little too much with needless over-characterization. For example, a few of the inmates have flashback scenes of the outside world which are gratuitous and provide unnecessary backstory; although they do serve to break the monotony of a story set within prison walls, and even add a little comic relief. You get the impression though that this is needless filler to bulk what is essentially a fairly short plot.

Overall this is an enjoyable enough movie that could have left a few extra yards of film on the cutting room floor. Beautiful production design, fantastic performances and a thrilling finale, ultimately marred by a few over-developed characters and a slightly hokey, overly romantic initial premise. Nowhere near Dassin’s best films, but this is due to a flawed screenplay rather than his directorial choices, which were as excellent as ever.

3.5 / 5