Thursday, October 2, 2014

Brute Force - 1947

Brute Force (1947) remains a giant among prison movies.  Visually stunning, it has a noir foundation on which is hung an unusually sensitive (for noir) study of men trapped by their circumstances, their sins, their weaknesses, their fears, their anger, and even by their ability, those that still have it, to feel the pain of those around them.

Burt Lancaster heads a sterling cast, even the most minor character is vivid and memorable in this film.  That’s what happens when you have a crisp, literate, and biting script, and most especially, a director and cinematographer who freely turn what could have been a stiff sort of docudrama, or clichéd melodrama—how most prison stories tend to be filmed—into unabashed art.  We are treated to a generous array of stunning close-ups and interestingly framed shots that tell us volumes about the men, especially since they are in a setting where they are close-mouthed, unlikely to tell us everything that’s going on inside them.

Expository dialogue goes to the administrators in the prison.  We have Richard Gaines, so dependable in officious roles as the severe, pompous superintendent, always pressuring the anxious, ineffectual warden, played by Roman Bohnen.  The warden complains of cutbacks in funding, that the prison is overcrowded, that the men need job training…all of which the superintendent balks at, saying what the men need is more discipline. 

The soft voice of the head of the prison security force, played by Hume Cronyn, belies his sadistic nature.  The little man enjoys the fear he excites in the hardened men, most of them much larger and physically imposing—but Cronyn wields power he’s swiped in a vacuum of leadership, tortures them physically and psychologically, and he has Ray Teal following behind him with a billy club like a human swagger stick.

The cast is a feast of favorite character actors, like Sam Levene, and Charles McGraw in one of many uncredited roles that filled the first several years of his film career. 

The wonderful Charles Bickford is the level-headed old timer, who breaks up fights in the prison among the other cons, and bides his time until his hoped-for parole.

Sir Lancelot sings calypso rhymes he makes up on the spot to narrate what he sees, as either a funny jest, or a warning, or a requiem for yet another dead prisoner.

There’s Jack Overman as one of the cellmates, an easygoing, simpleton ex-fighter.  One of my favorites, he has a bigger role here for once.  We’ve seen him in a non-speaking minor role in Once More, My Darling (1949) here, and also in Swell Guy (1946) here.  Sadly, Mr. Overman died in late 1949 at only 32 years old.

His cellmates include Whit Bissell, as a small-time embezzler, a sad, brittle fellow who, obsessed his shallow wife, played by Ella Raines in a flashback segment, fearing losing her love, steals from his employer to buy her a mink coat. 

John Hoyt is a stylish grifter, mainly in phoney stocks, a man-about-town with a charming easy-come, easy-go attitude.  I love his line, “I wonder who Flossie’s fleecing now?”

Howard Duff, in his first film, is a former soldier who took the rap for Yvonne De Carlo, an Italian woman he falls in love with during the war.  She has murdered her father to save Duff, but though he takes the blame to save her, I don’t believe his current imprisonment is for that crime.  He remarks about always wanting to get back to Italy to see her, but “one rap led to another.”

The best lines, and probably the best role of the film happily goes to Art Smith, who plays the prison doctor.  He’s just as fatalistic as the cons, and drinks heavily to dull the pain of this miserable place.  It's a terrific performance.   

But unlike the weak warden Roman Bohnen, who gives in to the bullying Richard Gaines and the devious machinations of Hume Cronyn, Mr. Smith is still a man of strong conscience.  He gets into shouting matches with them all, gets right in their faces and bleeds his anger and sarcasm all over them.  Again and again, they slap him down.

Burt Lancaster, whose character as the leader of his cell, and one of the most respected by the other prisoners for his toughness, is beautifully lit, if you can call his deadly cold glare and vicious snarl beautiful. 

We first see him standing in the prison yard in the pouring rain, but with his soaking wet shirt tucked neatly into his soaking wet prison trousers, he strides back to his cell, his shoulders straight, his head held high with an air of nobility.  Though he has just come out of solitary confinement, he is not broken.  He is angrier, and more charismatic to us and to the other prisoners, than ever.  The other men light his cigarettes as a mark of his leadership.  The only one who ranks him is Charles Bickford, who freely reaches into Lancaster’s prison jacket in another scene and swipes a match from Burt’s shirt pocket to light his own cigarette.  Burt lets him, hardly noticing, as if the older man could be his father and is allowed such liberties.

Because this is a setting of confinement, much of the film has the feeling of theatre, and the action that takes place is muted and judicious, until the very end of the film when we have the attempted prison break.  Director Jules Dassin and writer Richard Brooks have the perfect marriage of script and cinematography, where each supports the other, and the pace of the movie flows beautifully, building tension, and then releasing it a bit at a time in unexpected moments of black humor, and when, where the men watch the 1947 comedy The Egg and I starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert, it seems surreal.

Ann Blyth, like the few other women in the cast, save for the officious and severe secretary of the warden, is shown in flashback.  The women on “the outside” show us what the men’s lives were like before they went to prison.  There has always been a debate as to whether the flashback scenes with the women are necessary to the film.  Some critics and viewers feel they are fitting to the story, and others feel they slow the story down and detract from the intensity of the prison scenes. 

Even director Jules Dassin apparently did not want to use the flashback device.  Author Alan K. Rode in his biography of Charles McGraw, Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, reveals that Dassin gave in to producer Mark Hellinger and the studio brass to include the four flashback scenes that show women who have influenced the lives of some of the men in the cell.  He quotes Dassin:

“Truly, the film is demeaned by the inclusion of ‘the women.’  I had to choose between not making the film and yielding to having the women nonsense.  Many years later when I looked at the film…I do not forgive myself.”

I don’t know how screenwriter Richard Brooks felt about the women scenes, but I’m inclined to think Mr. Dassin’s dislike of them might be, in part, a director’s usual, and quite understandable, bristling at having to shoot the film to someone else’s vision.

On another note, Mark Hellinger had to fight toe-to-toe with the Breen office because the MPAA wanted to censor many of the films violent scenes, a reference to marijuana, and even to exclude the word “cancer” when referring to Ann Blyth’s diagnosis because the very word was upsetting to the public.  Perhaps Hellinger threw Breen a bone when he has the doctor, Art Smith, reassure Burt Lancaster that, “These days, cancer doesn’t have to mean death at all.”

That’s another reason why Burt has to bust out of prison.  There’s a time element to Ann’s needed operation.

Others have suggested that the flashbacks represent a societal misogyny, or some statement to the effect that these are regular Joes who’ve been led astray by dames.  Again, here I disagree.  They show the men, more than the women, to be flawed.  Though John Hoyt has his car, his gun, and his gambling winnings stolen by a floozy, he was obviously willingly, knowingly taking chances in an underworld game of roulette, and the odds were against him this time.  He shrugs it off, amused and unrepentant.

Whit Bissell’s wife’s cooling ardor for him, and her greed for the mink coat which she clearly treasures more than her husband, leads to his downfall, but she did not force him to embezzle, had no idea he was doing it.  Bissell was not led astray, he was a fool who turned to thievery, and his obsession with his wife was such that it leads to his suicide when Hume Cronyn tells him (whether true or not) that his wife is divorcing him.  “I get quite a kick out of censoring the mail.”

Howard Duff’s taking the rap for Yvonne De Carlo does not make her a villain, her act of love is to protect him; his was to protect her.  But thinking this paints Duff as a hero wrongly placed in prison is also erroneous.  He is not in prison for assuming the guilt for her murder of her father; he plainly tells us he’s had other “raps” since.  Besides, he would have been incarcerated in a military prison were that so.  Look at the scene where he, John Hoyt and Jeff Corey go after a “stoolpigeon” prisoner with blowtorches, forcing him to be crushed in a stamping machine.  Look at their expressionless faces.  These regular Joes are killers. 

We could probably dispense with their flashback scenes (indeed, Anita Colby as Hoyt's floozy girlfriend never even gets any lines), but the one with Burt Lancaster and Ann Blyth I think is important to the film.  We don’t know if Lancaster has committed murder on the outside, but we see he is tied in with a gang he gives orders to, and probably is involved in something more like bank robbery.  Just before he leaves on another “job,” he stops by the house where Ann Blyth lives, an invalid in a wheelchair.  Lancaster hands a caregiver an envelope with money, “See that she doesn’t need anything.”

Ann is at first asleep, then he wakes her, and in their tender scene shows us that Lancaster is tired of running, that this will be his last job, and then he will come back to her for good.  He tells her that when he met her, he was a guy who “found the first important thing in his life.”  She doesn’t know what racket he’s in, but she senses he is troubled.  She wants to help him, wishes she weren’t sick so that she could help him.

“There are all kinds of sick people, Ruth.  Maybe we could help each other.”  The scene is gentle, affectionate, somewhat sad.  Ann’s character is not a gun moll, she’s a sweet, decent girl who trusts him.  This is important because it bolsters the visual image we already have of Burt Lancaster in the film as more a wounded animal than a psychopath.  

Indeed, at the very end of the movie when he is shot in the prison escape, he rears back with a single roar of pain and rage, like an animal in a trap, cut short as he fires several rounds into the guard who wounded him.  Bookending his cold expression of anger through most of the film is the softened, relaxed look of tenderness on his face when he sees her sleeping, and at the very desperate end when he sees that the escape plan has failed, and he looks for a moment like he could cry.

We need this scene with Ann Blyth, maybe all of “the women” scenes, not to remind us that the men are human, but because we are.  We can’t root for criminals to break free from jail, not unless we have some emotional stake in their success.  Without emotion, it becomes as academic as a watching the outcome of a dog race, and without the betting.

Interestingly, their scene ends with the camera remaining focused on Ann after Burt has left the room, tears welling in her eyes, heartbroken, frustrated, and fearful.  Dassin's touch, or Hellinger's?

One wonders what private demons she might have faced in the brief scene.  She was eighteen years old.  In the previous two years she had spent several months really in a wheelchair as a result of her spine injury, and her mother really died of cancer, both discussed in our intro post to this series.  Life's coincidences are occasionally macabre.

Producer Mark Hellinger may have had yet another reason for putting Ann Blyth and Burt Lancaster together.  He had hired her for Swell Guy (1947), and him for The Killers (1946).  They were two of Universal’s most talented up and coming stars, and he may have wanted to turn them into a team.  According to syndicated gossip columnist Dorothy Manners who wrote this in May 1946:

Mark Hellinger, always good for a bright idea, said to me, “Where are those swell romantic teams that used to make the fans goggle-eyed over their love scenes…It’s time the love team is revived on screen,” and Mark is the boy who is going to do it with his two young stars, Ann Blyth and Burt Lancaster…he wants to make three or four with Ann and Burt.  This Blyth girl is the real star stuff—young, tempestuous and definitely a screen personality.  If you saw her as Mildred Pierce’s daughter, you know what I mean.

Having played in her previous two films as young women of dubious, or downright evil, character, her role as the kindly, gentle Ruth in Brute Force would be the first important break in a string of roles that could have left her typecast, and farther away from ever doing the musicals she hoped to make.  But Ann Blyth was not done with bad girls yet: A Woman’s Vengeance (1948), discussed here, and Another Part of the Forest (1948), discussed here, were on the horizon.  She’s in Brute Force all of only about three or four minutes, but her scene is indelible, and does more for Burt Lancaster’s character than the awe the other prisoners show for him.

Their romantic team never did materialize.  Both went on to other films, and Mark Hellinger, who might have made a pet project of bringing them together again on screen, tragically died about six months after Brute Force was released.

Come back next week to Katie Did It (1951), a movie I can’t find, and a few thoughts about that and on Ann’s career as we round the corner and head for the home stretch on this series.

Milwaukee Sentinel, May 31, 1946, syndicated column by Dorothy Manners, p. 4.

Rode, Alan K.  Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, (McFarland, 2007), p. 32.

As  most of you probably know by now, this year's TCM Classic Cruise will set sail (proverbially) in October, and one of the celebrity guests is Ann Blyth.

Ann will be doing a couple hour-long conversation sessions, and will also be on hand for a screening of Mildred Pierce.

Have a look here for the rest of the schedule and events with the other celebrity guests. Unfortunately, the cruise is booked, so if' you're late, you can try for the waiting list.

I, sadly, am unable to attend this cruise, but if any reader is going,  I invite you (beg you) to share your experiences and/or photos relating to Miss Blyth on this blog as part of our year-long series on her career.  I'd really appreciate your perspective on the event, to be our eyes and ears.  Thanks.
 THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.


Caftan Woman said...

The first time I saw "Brute Force" I found the flashbacks a corny distraction. Second viewing, I realized they "upped" my emotional stake in the characters. Both times I wanted to shake Art Smith's hand and tell him how wonderful he was as the doctor.

You have made me want to watch "Brute Force" again, after years of thinking I was done.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I know, it's funny how repeated viewing of a movie can change our perception of it, especially if we've seen it at very different ages and eras in our lives. I agree about Art Smith, I just love him in this movie. Rarely has a character actor gotten the best lines and walked away with the movie. I'd love to know your impressions of the movie again, CW.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Moira Finnie said...

How beautifully you convey this film's power, Jacqueline. I think that the flashbacks were necessary for commercial reasons as well as the give the characters emotional depth. More than 50% of the audiences going to movies regularly were women, even in the years after the war as attendance fell. Hellinger had great storytelling instincts, but he knew he needed to make a buck for Universal as well to continue in his new-found niche as an independent producer under their aegis.

Sadly, his early death from heart disease was a real blow to the careers of several filmmakers--including Dassin. I can't help wondering how Hellinger would have coped with the coming HUAC impact on Hollywood.

Art Smith was such a great actor, it's good to see your comments about his role here. I love his work as Jourdan's perceptive manservant in Letter to an Unknown Woman (1948) and Bogart's long-suffering agent in In a Lonely Place (1950). What a shame that his film career was truncated due to the fear spread by McCarthy and company. He had many more rich characterizations to share with us.

Can't say I have ever quite gotten over seeing Hume Cronyn in this movie when I was a kid. I know he was a good actor, but brrrrrr, what a chilling figure.

Thanks for another fine review of an aspect of Ann Blyth's career (esp. the context you put her role into here). Also appreciate the kind words.

Kevin Deany said...

Probably the most brutal our Ann ever appeared in. I too, like the flashbacks. They never bothered me too much and help one to understand how the characters wound up in the prison.

Composer Miklos Rozsa thought enough of his score to include, if memory serves, two selections from his BRUTE FORCE score in an orchestral suite titled "Background to Violence" and featuring music from his other film noir classics, including THE KILLERS and THE NAKED CITY. The piece was also subtitled "The Mark Hellinger Suite." Rozsa cared little for producers in Hollywood, but thought very highly of Hellinger.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Moira. So glad Art Smith has his fans still. I agree the McCarthy smear was tragic -- and would have implications for other men in the cast as well, including Dassin. Great points about Hellinger's business acumen.

Cronyn was so good in this movie. We might usually expect a beefy, snarling type, but his passive-aggressive act is so eerie.

Kevin, I didn't know that about Rozsa's orchestral suite, and I was certainly remiss not mention the score. How nice of him to make a tribute to Hellinger in that way.

You're right, perhaps the most brutal film Ann made, and it is another black, hopeless realization that not only do the men die in the escape, but Ann's character is evidently never going to have her operation, and so it is doom for her as well.

M.Allen for Classic Movie Hub said...

Hi Jacqueline,

Lovely post. I've had many people suggest this film to me, dubbing 'a film-noir with heart of prison film.' I'll admit I've a bit a skeptical and have had it on the back burner for a while now but your post has definitely made it move to the forefront of films I need to see. You make particularly interested in how the content and form work together to create the noir environment, an environment in my mind so liked to urban cities, in something as contained as a prison.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome to the blog, and thank you very much. Your remark about the prison as a microcosm of the urban city is very astute. I'm sure you'll find lots to discover in this movie, and I hope you enjoy it. It's certainly a very powerful film.

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