Watched my DVD of Jules Dassin’s prison film Brute Force last week (and before you ask, I had no idea then that Madhur Bhandarkar’s latest exercise in social awareness, Jail, was about to be released). This is a very gripping movie, right up there with I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Cool Hand Luke in its genre. It’s widely seen as a commentary on the brutality of prison life and the need to make conditions more humane, but personally this wasn’t the aspect of the film I found most interesting. For starters, it’s difficult as an Indian viewer in 2009 to properly appreciate the reformist aspects of a 1947 movie set in Westgate Penitentiary, or to fully understand the context: there’s the disconnect that one frequently experiences while watching an old film about a social issue that has become either obsolete or changed in vital ways over time.
Secondly, I didn’t think the reformist stuff was the main strength of the film anyway; the characters are a little too simply drawn for that. There’s one all-out bad guy – the sadistic, upwardly mobile prison warden Captain Munsey, as smooth and repellent as a silkworm. He’s superbly played by Hume Cronyn, but the character is written as a caricature and a symbol: he’s so deplorable that the film pointedly associates him with both homosexuality (gasp!) and Nazism (he listens to Wagner records while beating up prisoners with a rubber truncheon that isn't just a rubber truncheon!).
In the opposite corner are six prisoners led by the handsome, brooding Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster). They share a cell and plan a breakout together, but they all seem more victims of circumstance than hardened criminals – ill-suited to any sort of jail, much less an overcrowded, unhygienic one supervised by Gay Hitler. The other authority figures are weak foils for the single-minded Munsey, who believes in ruling with an iron thumb, though there IS a benevolent doctor who briefly stands up to him and generally serves as a sutradhaar figure at the end.
For me, the strengths of Brute Force lay not in the message-mongering or the use of characters as symbols for ideologies but (clichéd though it sounds) in the sheer skilfulness of its storytelling: its low-key, mostly realist treatment of daily life in a claustrophobic, cut-off setting; the relationships amongst the prisoners (including the veteran Gallagher, who runs the in-house newspaper and who reminded me of Morgan Freeman’s stoical Red in The Shawshank Redemption); and the beautiful black-and-white photography with the many little nods to Expressionism (there’s a wonderful opening shot of the prison drawbridge in the rain, and a great silhouette of a suicide in his cell, his distinctive glasses dangling prominently from his nose). Other fine touches include the poster of a woman’s face in the cell where the break-out is planned; more a mask, an abstraction, than a real woman, this photograph is very different from the large Rita Hayworth poster that plays such a key role in The Shawshank Redemption. But it represents different things to each of the residents of Cell 17, reminding them of the girls waiting for them back home and of the circumstances that led them to prison.
In one of his first films, Burt Lancaster is a great physical presence – as he was throughout his career – but he also gives a surprisingly solid performance, many years before he started making conscious efforts to become a Serious Actor. In one of the many (slightly melodramatic) flashback scenes that give us background information on the prisoners, there’s a wonderfully performed moment where Joe’s girlfriend, an invalid, wonders aloud if people are good to her because they feel sorry for her. “I’m not 'people'. I’m Joe Collins, one guy” says Joe tersely, before quickly kissing her and getting up to leave. It’s the sort of tough-talk you expect from noir heroes of the time, but Lancaster brings a low-key realism to it, and that little moment tells us more about Joe than lines of exposition could: particularly his fierce individualism, which might end up hindering the getaway.
Jules Dassin is a director whom I always associate with the best qualities of film noir, though he worked in other genres too. My favourites among his films, Rififi and Night and the City, are taut, economical movies with hardly a superfluous shot in them. I’d place Brute Force just half a rung beneath them.
P.S. Another pleasing little connection I discovered between two very different types of movies: around the same time that Hume Cronyn was playing the fascist Munsey, he was co-writing the screenplay for Hitchcock’s Rope, the two young murderer-protagonists of which are also associated with both Nazism (through their espousal of Nietzsche’s Superman theory) and homosexuality. John Dall, who plays Brandon in Rope, strongly resembles Cronyn in this film - both physically and in his slightly effete way of talking. I had a vision of Cronyn (as screenwriter-cum-actor) performing scenes for the younger actor during rehearsals.