Jules Dassin created some of cinema’s most brutal moments in his oeuvre, scenes of shocking violence that still pack a punch more than 70 years after his films debuted. Brute Force, released in 1947 before the blacklisted director fled to Europe, is perhaps one of his most nihilistic. A prison escape drama with flourishes of social commentary, it is clear from the get-go that none of the characters in Brute Force stand a chance. Still, Dassin’s inmates rage against the machine, battling against poor odds to achieve a gasp of freedom as a way to regain their dignity.

Many American films in the mid to late ‘40s attempted to boost the spirits of a country mired in an international conflict or provide riveting escape. Dassin’s movie, on the other hand, takes the hypocrisy of our prison system head-on, using illusions to Nazi concentration camps to prove that we’re not much better in the treatment of our citizens that we consider undesirable. Hume Cronyn, who plays the cruel Captain Munsey, embodies this hypocritical evil, a small man who uses his authority to control the inmates in displays of gross misuse of power. On the other side of the ring, Burt Lancaster stars as Joe Collins, a convict who stages a jailbreak to escape the inhuman conditions of the prison.

Brute Force exists in a time before prison dramas became its own genre so it must have really been something in 1947. Dassin explores the power dynamics from within, from a spineless warden to a kind, but soused doctor to the scheming Munsey who has his designs on taking over the warden’s position. It is no surprise that Dassin and producer Mark Hellinger essentially craft their villain as a fascist. Both were left-leaning and foresaw a far-right movement in the United States post-WWII. In stark contrast to Munsey, most of the prisoners are cast as good-hearted men who have run astray of the law. Character development is limited, save for a few flashbacks that show the prisoners as tenderhearted ne’er-do-wells who just want to escape into the arms of the woman waiting for them outside the walls. This may not engender full-fleshed characters, but Dassin is more interested in a socio-political good against evil struggle than nuance.

That is until the men are betrayed by one of their own. In a harrowing scene early on in the film, the inmates work together to dispatch an informant. In a moment that is still shocking, Dassin films, with the same precision he would bring to the heist in Rififi, the intricate planning that goes into the murder of a fellow prisoner. These men must withstand a lot, but ratting is not tolerated. In some ways, they are merely saving themselves and in other ways, they are sublimating the harsh disciplinary philosophy that Munsey embodies.

In between the action sequences, Dassin allows his characters to wax poetic about crime and punishment. What good are prisons if the men come out worse off than when they go in? Is a strong arm the only way to get men to obey? But Dassin knows that violence is not the way, evident in a later scene where Munsey clubs a shackled prisoner repeatedly during interrogation. Despite being beaten to the point of death, the prisoner doesn’t betray his comrades. Still, Munsey’s savagery is contagious and in the riveting finale, he learns that we reap what we sow. Brute Force may be light on nuance but if it can still shock 75 years later, imagine just how audiences reacted when it was released.

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