Burt Lancaster fought hard in the later part of his career to overcome his image as a pretty boy. Famously dismissed as “Mr. Muscles and Teeth”, he rejected this typecasting and eventually transformed himself into one of his generation’s most well-respected actors.
But it’s not hard to see just why this image became so indelibly etched in the public’s imagination: Lancaster appears for much of Brute Force without his shirt on. The decision to showcase his taut, hard-chiseled physique—while certainly a concession to Lancaster’s status as a serious heartthrob even as early in his career as 1947 (Brute Force is only his second film)—also places the viewer’s focus squarely on the film’s thematic core.
Lancaster’s Joe Collins is trapped by circumstance and the law in an unbearable situation, his muscles rigid and coiled to escape; in reality, Lancaster had been a professional gymnast and circus acrobat, and the sight of his firm musculature straining against both the figurative and literal bonds of his confinement provides the film’s most potent symbol of dramatic tension. Unfortunately, this tension is never quite as powerful in execution as it seems for those few, fleeting moments when Lancaster is allowed the luxury of expressing this caged passion.
While Brute Force remains an important artifact in the history of American noir, it’s hard not to feel the need to qualify that statement. Yes, the film was directed by Jules Dassin, who directed such noir keystones as Night and the City (1950) and Rififi (1955); yes, it was produced by Mark Hellinger, whose all-to-brief career in Hollywood was marked by the production of a handful of the best noir films every made [The Naked City (1948), also with Dassin, as well as Lancaster’s first role, in the iconic Hemingway adaptation The Killers (1946)].
But moreso than many of these early stylistic forerunners, Brute Force seems to strain against its limitations. Early noir got away with quite a bit in the way of shadow and moral ambiguity, but there isn’t a lot of room to maneuver in the tight space of a prison cell. For every bit of violence, real or intimated, there’s a kind of moral equivalency at work, and vice versa, as every good deed is balanced by an equal and opposite cruelty. It’s exactly this kind of zero-sum calculus that creates the pervasive atmosphere of futility that defines noir. In the claustrophobic context of a prison, this futility seems almost gratuitous.
There are two thoughts paramount in the mind of any viewer who sits down to watch Brute Force with full hindsight. The first is a question: H ow did they get away with as much as they did? The second is that they didn’t get away with nearly as much as they needed. Despite the genre’s popularity in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the mechanics of shooting a prison movie strained mightily against the Motion Picture Academy Production Code of the time. Hume Cronyn plays Captain Munsey, the sadistic head of the prison guards, with a relish that must have seemed deliberately provocative at the time: slightly effete, with shades of fascist romance in his eyes, he is without question a villain. Perhaps the unambiguous nature of his cruelty allowed the character to escape further scrutiny?
Despite these sinister elements—and the addition of a few scenes in the movie’s final cut which were expressly forbidden by the Ratings board (such as Lancaster’s ultimate victory over Captain Munsey)—the movie still carries the obvious influence of moral emendation. In a heated exchange of correspondence between Hellinger and then-Production Code head Joseph Breen reprinted in the DVD’s booklet, Hellinger vents his frustration at being held to that organization’s strict standards during the production of Brute Force: “I feel that the guts of my picture are gone”.
It’s easy to see why he felt that way. Brute Force is the story of a prison break, with a half-dozen desperate men set against a brutal and uncaring prison establishment bent on destroying them. As it is, the restrictions placed on the filmmakers forced the film into patently preposterous compromises. The protagonists must be portrayed as morally upstanding and essentially decent people, despite the fact that they are prisoners in a federal penitentiary. The guards and prison bureaucracy could never be seen in unsympathetic lights according to the enumeration of the code, which provided that human institutions of law should never be portrayed in a negative light (a restriction they bent mightily by allowing a single guard—Munsey—to stand in for the institutionalized cruelty of the entire prison), and that violations of the law could never be portrayed positively. How, then, to film a movie for which the dramatic crux is explicitly verboten?
The answer is, obviously, very carefully. Prison expert Paul Mason, in an exclusive interview included on the DVD, pinpoints the genre’s appeal with deft precision: “We like to see victories over authority.” The inability of the filmmakers to deliver any kind of lasting victory for the inmates with whom the audience identifies forces the movie down particularly dark cul de sacs. The film’s primary group of prisoners, led in their escape by Lancaster, are all portrayed as more or less decent men trapped in prison through the commission of crimes with heavily mitigating circumstances—this alone strains the audience’s credulity, with debonair gangsters weeping over wheelchair-bound sweethearts and well-meaning soldiers forced to accept murder charges to protect their wives from prison.
Giving the prisoners such strongly sympathetic backstories, contrary from making the film more “moral”, only muddies the waters. As film critic James Ursini notes in his commentary, “Brute Force is one of the grimmest of the noirs, the most deterministic and fatalistic. The use of the rain—which is an icon of film noir—beating down, and the constant, inexorable quality of time moving on, the use of clocks throughout . . . it is really a very existential, deterministic movie.”
If the filmmakers had been allowed a freer hand to develop their characters, offering more in the way of ambiguity in their presentation of the prisoners as well as the prison establishment, the result could not have been any more grim than the picture we are left with. It’s easy to see the historical mechanisms responsible for the development of noir as a genre at work here: the “Catch 22” of portraying all protagonists as good men, and yet insisting that every criminal act be punished, creates a mechanism by which no good deed goes unpunished, a universe in which none are allowed any deferment from the checks-and-balances of inescapable moral opprobrium. Certainly not what the framers of the Hays Code intended.
Despite the unmistakably strong beginnings of his Hollywood career (after many decades spent on Broadway), producer Hellinger would make only a handful of films before his untimely death at the age of 44, just six months after the premiere of Brute Force. Director Dassin left the United States under fear from the blacklist in 1949, and although the success of later films such as Rafifi and Never On Sunday (1960) buoyed his later career, he never returned to Hollywood.
Lancaster, of course, went on to become one of the great leading men in the history of the movies. But Lancaster was never really as handsome as he was intense, and it is this intensity which forms the moral core of Brute Force. There was always something dark beneath his chiseled brow, a restless heart of darkness forged in the depths of noir that radiated throughout his career.