20 May 2008

BRUTE FORCE (Dir. Jules Dassin, 1947, US) - Reactionary Politics & Exile

Prior to being made an exile in France after the McCarthy witch hunts in the 50s had conveniently conjured up a name and shame blacklist of Hollywood artists who had supposed communist affiliations, the director Jules Dassin was considered a talented and formidable film maker who had made a series of influential film noirs with a blunt socialist agenda - Thieves Highway, Night & The City, The Naked City and Brute Force are all recognised as some of the finest examples of film noir. Jules Dassin spent much of his post Hollywood career extending his grasp of the noir universe by making crime thrillers in France. The most notable example in this period of exile is the much revered and influential heist film, Rififi (1955).

Much of Dassin's work has been rediscovered on DVD and Criterion's release of Dassin's 1947 noirish prison movie, Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster as an embittered inmate and criminal up against the tyrannical rule of an unjust prison system is yet another film that has been given the five star treatment with a remastered print transfer and additional supporting extras that provide some weighty historical context and indispensable commentaries.

Ideologically, Brute Force is confirmation of Dassin's emboldened leftist political beliefs, and his scathing and damning critique of prison life is indicative of the corruption he felt was rife in public institutions that were merely used as agents of social control by the government at large to deny prisoners any chance of reformation and redemption. The notion of a second chance society was something that did not chime well with society at the time, especially a post war conservative society that did not want to face the social realities that underlined a time of economic prosperity and youthful idealism. The title of the film refers to the authoritarian hard line tactics used by the prison guard, Capt Munsey, (Hume Cronyn) who is depicted as a corrupt public figure intent on using his power to subject inmates to bouts of verbal and physical violence - Dassin through the figure of Munsey seems to say that control in society can only be exercised and accomplished through a routine of fear, intimidation and direct physical coercion.

Considering this film was made as a studio film and in an era of strict conservatism, Dassin's confrontational politics seem to be openly critical of the establishment and the inhumane prison policy that was advocated and enforced at the time. Such a radical ideological position confirms how Dassin would quickly become an obvious target for the HUAC and eventually lead to him being made a virtual outcast. The McCarthy witch hunts truly were a moment of shame and outrage for Hollywood and though these events have now been well documented in all forms of popular culture, it is still difficult to overlook how communist red baiting was such an accepted part of mainstream life.

Though Burt Lancaster was limited by the range of roles he took on over his career, his performance style was characterised by a remarkable physicality, and he was a true contortionist in the way in which he could manifest the physical attributes of the characters he played through either costumes, props or gestures. A noir regular, Burt Lancaster brought a grittiness and realism to many of the noirs that he starred in and made the trait of wounded masculinity seem altogether more acceptable within his profession.

Effectively, the producers could not allow this film to have been simply another social problem movie so they were eager to ensure the narrative held a significant entertainment value, and this is why Dassin was forced to work in the plot about a prison break that ends in bloody chaos and death. Dassin also objected to the studio's imposed flashback sequences for each of the inmates, (detailing how they ended up in prison), as they offered a forced sense of morality that contradicted the deeply pessimistic and fatalistic tone of the film.

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