Aug. 18, 2011
Brute Force (1947)
Grade: 51/100

Director: Jules Dassin
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford

What it's about. This grim prison drama stars burly Burt Lancaster as an inmate determined to break out, so that he can convince one-scene hottie Ann Blyth to have a life-saving cancer operation.

Although the prisoners are nominally led by elder statesman Charles Bickford, Lancaster is able to convince the men into a violent break-out. However, sadistic guard Hume Cronyn has an informer network and is ready for Lancaster's plan.

Supporting roles include wishy-washy warden Roman Bohnen, singing black prisoner Sir Lancelot, likeable but alcoholic doctor Art Smith, and various ill-fated prisoners and their former women (Yvonne De Carlo, Ella Raines, Anita Colby) who appear in brief flashback cameos.

How others will see it. Brute Force solidified Lancaster's A-list status, first established by The Killers (1946). Similar to his role in that film noir, his obsession with a woman, in this case Blyth, proves his undoing.

The workmanlike Brute Force was not nominated for any Academy Awards, but it is relatively popular by classic film standards. At, it has a high and consistent user rating of 7.7 out of 10. The confrontation between Lancaster and Cronyn is inevitable, violent, and crowd-pleasing, with both men getting what is coming to them.

How I felt about it. This is one of those prison movies where the inmates are swell guys who have caught a bad break, while the guards are the ones who should really be behind bars (also see: The Shawshank Redemption). Apart from Cronyn, who plays against type in creepy Hannibal fashion, the villains here are the women, who remain free despite leading their saps to ruin.

The prisoners' society is familiar to those who have seen Dead End (1938). Squealers are punished. Tough guys persevere. Follow the leader. Revere women, regardless of what they have done to you. And above all, avoid and despise evil Hume Cronyn, who definitely does not have your best interests at heart.

The prison staff, therefore, is moderately more interesting. A philosophical battle is waged between cynical and cruel Cronyn, well-meaning but hapless warden Bohnen, and sympathetic but ineffectual doctor Smith. Cronyn sows unrest among the prisoners because it will give him an excuse to punish them, and it will make Bohnen look bad. Cronyn would like to pry Bohnen from his post and take his place. But he is opposed by Smith, the prisoner's confidante and a man who understands Cronyn all too well.

Unfortunately for us, the drama isn't really between the staff, but between Lancaster and Cronyn. Both characters are exaggerated. Cronyn's sadism is all too obvious, and it is difficult to reconcile Lancaster's dog-like devotion to Blyth with his desire to kill every guard in the prison. We also find it a remarkable coincidence that the warden is forced to step down moments before the big attempted prison break takes place.