"Brute Force" is one of the most violent film noirs of the classic era, as well as one of the most pessimistic -and this is after some violence was removed to comply with the Production Code. The story takes place within the confines of Westgate Penitentiary, an overcrowded prison whose deficient living conditions and sadistic guards make the inmates' lives nearly unbearable. Prison life is no less than a war between the inmates and guard Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), who routinely uses blackmail and torture to control the prisoners. When the warden revokes all the inmates' privileges in response to the deaths of two men, inmate Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) hatches a violent and risky escape plan with his cellmates and a senior, well-respected prisoner named Gallagher (Charles Bickford).
Director Jules Dessin doesn't let a glimmer of hope into this film. The violence is brutal and wholly without sentiment or regret. The utter hopelessness of the situation in the prison is overwhelming. Brute force is the only means in Westgate Penitentiary. The standout performance is by Hume Cronyn as the Nazi-inspired Captain Munsey, an unabashed sadist who uses social Darwinism to rationalize absolute dominance of the prisoners, who are, after all, behind bars, not free to challenge him. The prison doctor, a disgraced surgeon named Walters (Art Smith), numbs himself with alcohol and articulates the film's themes. "Do you know what this prison is?" he says. "One big human bomb!"
The film is a little too long, and the flashback scenes of wives and girlfriends are superfluous. This is perhaps the most blatantly existential film noir. It takes the position of Sartrean philosophy, articulated by Dr. Walters, which is juxtaposed with Nietzschean philosophy, articulated by Capt. Munsey. I'm not normally captivated by either of these schools of thought, but "Brute Force" kept me interested for the duration of the film. It is a brutal, beautiful film with sharp dialogue, solid character writing, and great attention to detail.
The DVD (Image Entertainment 1999): This is a good print of the film with no obvious image or sound problems. Bonus features include filmographies of director Jules Dessin, writer Richard Brooks, and 3 of the film's stars. (Choose "Filmographies", then "next" to see them.) The "Stills and Pressbook Gallery" (4 minutes) is a slideshow, with accompanying them music by Miklos Rozsa, of production stills, posters, and advertisements for the film.