Monday, November 09, 2009

Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (and a sidenote on homosexual Nazis in 1940s films)

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.


  1. Despite 40s being my favourite film decade, I never cease to be surprised by the number of high-quality movies I'm yet to discover from that period. The era is almost like an akshaya patra of wholesome movies that are difficult to dislike. And I'm yet to look too far beyond mainstream Hollywood.

    I've mixed feelings about Hume Cronym. Wasn't he the guy who wrote that witless script for Under Capricorn? That film could've been a winner for Hitch had he roped in a Thornton Wilder or a Ben Hecht to do the script.

    Interesting that a couple of years after this, we had a prison drama of a very different kind - Walsh's White Heat, a much more flamboyant film with a most extraordinary screen performance from the great Jimmy Cagney.

  2. Thanks for this recommendation.
    I think you know that I have this habit of making connections between flim stars. On that note Lancaster reminds me of Vinod Khanna.
    @Srikanth,White Heat is not really a prison drama,so to speak.Great movie nonetheless.
    I wanted to recommend two - "The Hill" and "Pressure Point",which had a great performance by Bobby Darin.
    "The hill" has at least 5 oscar worthy performances and is one of my all time favorites.

  3. Rahul - White Heat may not be a movie about prison life. But nearly a third of the film is set in prison, I think. Also, the prison sequences are so much more memorable than the rest of the film.

    Btw, Watched one of Lancaster's most famous films - From Here to Eternity recently. Found it badly dated. A rather weak film with an inflated reputation thanks to the Oscars.

  4. Shrikanth, I agree with that. I remember that movie mostly for Monty Clift's performance. I have never been impressed by Sinatra for some reason. By the way, this is the movie which is supposed to be mentioned in the Godfather, for which Johny Fontaine got an Oscar(in the book).

  5. Rahul: I found even Clift's performance in the film strictly routine. He was more interesting in movies like The Heiress and I Confess.

    FHTE made me believe a little more strongly in the auteur theory. A second rung Hitchcock/Hawks is generally more interesting than the best work of a Zinnemann or a Curtiz.

  6. I share your feelings about FHTE, but...

    "A second rung Hitchcock/Hawks is generally more interesting than the best work of a Zinnemann or a Curtiz" a bit extreme?? Second-rung Hitchcock/Hawks to my mind is decidedly less interesting than Casablanca or High Noon.

  7. Shrikanth, what do you think of "North by North west" ?

  8. A second rung Hitchcock/Hawks is generally more interesting than the best work of a Zinnemann or a Curtiz.

    shrikanth: oh, personally speaking, I'd consider a second-rung Hitchcock more interesting than the best work of many other directors! But in general I'm not so sure about this statement. Sure, if you're looking at a film for what it reveals about a director's particular sensibility and how it ties in thematically with the rest of his oeuvre, I'd agree. But even relatively workmanlike directors like Curtiz and Zinnemann have made movies of a very high quality. And it's possible, of course, to see Casablanca as a film that just happened to be directed by Curtiz (as opposed to "a Michael Curtiz Film").

    I loved From Here to Eternity when I was 14, but I agree that it's dated quite embarrassingly. And because it still has such a high reputation in middlebrow circles (multi-Oscar winner, etc etc), it's given many casual viewers a misleading impression of what actors like Lancaster and Clift stood for or were capable of.

  9. even relatively workmanlike directors like Curtiz and Zinnemann have made movies of a very high quality

    Very much agree. It's just that given a choice to watch either Hawks' Ball of Fire or Curtiz's Casablanca, I'd pick the former.

    It's also possible that we might underappreciate a very good movie made by a director who has the reputation of being workmanlike.
    Just finished watching Curtiz's Mildred Pierce. Just as good, but not as widely acclaimed as some of Sirk's melodramas. Probably because Curtiz is not as popular as Sirk in auteurist circles.

    Rahul: You might want to read this

  10. shrikanth: thanks for that link, really good article. I'm surprised Thomson didn't mention DePalma in his list of living directors whose work is immediately recognisable as their own.

    Incidentally V F Perkins, in his excellent book Film as Film, provides a superb analysis of the artistry of the shower scene in Psycho. He also discusses how shot composition and editing are rigorously used throughout the film to make it an organic whole, with one scene echoing, commmenting on or even foreshadowing another. Fascinating analysis.

    Perkins also has a very high opinion of Preminger, which I found interesting when I first read the book, because I had never really got a sense of Preminger as a major director (much less an auteur) before then.

  11. Thomson also missed out on Woody Allen. Even when you're watching a Woody Allen movie which doesn't star Allen himself, you're aware of it.

    Also, Tarantino? Call his style a pastiche if you will, but whatever it is, its instantly recognisable as QT.

  12. Thanks for the link Shrikanth.I guess I have to revisit Hitchcock. I saw most of him when I was in my early teens and I vividly remember being impresed by "Spellbound" from that time.

  13. Nice review, JW. I saw BF & Naked City one after the other quite recently. I wasn't that impressed with BF. Parts of it were very Hindi movie-ish in its flashbacks & kind but drunken doctor & some other stock characters. It is still a very well-done movie, & I am a big fan of Dassin. His late 40s output is awesome. And you must watch Naked City, it is a cracker & holds up very well. In fact Howard Duff who plays the soldier in BF has a great role in Naked City. I have listened to his Sam Spade radio series, which is very different from the original (more jokey, bit of a horndog).

    And on the subject of connctions, Lancaster appeared in another prison movie which I haven't seen in a long time & can barely remember now - Birdman of Alcatraz (though I live in its vicinity). And Cronyn, who was married to Jessica Tandy, had a great debut in Shadow Of A Doubt as the nerdy neighbour.

  14. Thanks for this recommendation.

  15. You know it is funny- whenever I think of the movie Rope I think about you. Most people know you as a lover of movies, few know that you are a very dark, macabre and sick man. I am 100% sure that you have secretly browbeaten a fellow Dehlite at a dinner party with a cricket bat, as a way of tribute to your hero Brian De Palma. One also suspects that you have a villa in some place like Dehradun or Nainital, where you have murdered many a young North Indian babes, whom you had seduced with your writing skills, when they were in the shower. That was your tribute to your other hero Hitchcock.

    There is reason enough to believe that you have acted weird with a Delhi cab driver in a manner that Scorcese did in his movie Taxi Driver, just for the kicks. Off-late, your perversions flare up when Rafa does not win tennis tournaments. There is reason to believe that you have commited a murder like "The Rope". Then you probably invited the Delhi intelligentsia to a dinner party.

  16. Anon: that's one of the best comments I've received this year! Most of your conjectures are true, but sadly I've only succeeded in doing those things in my head so far. Perhaps that will change sometime in the future. After all I'm still relatively young, and the real-life Ed Gein was in his 50s!