1947, Movies

Brute Force (1947, Jules Dassin)

This prison escape film has dated rather horribly in the ensuing years and so I can’t really recommend it, though there is nothing particularly bad about it (for the most part).

I don’t know how many prison movies had been made by 1947 but so many have been made in the interim that a few things have happened:

  • they’re far more realistic about prison life, both in terms of interactions between the prisoners themselves and the prisoners and their guards
  • the politics of prisons is a little more nunanced
  • the balance between these things is handled better.

This movie tries to combine a prison escape with both relatively complicated internal dynamics in the prison (both among the prisoners and among the staff) and with flashbacks to the prisoners’ lives on the outside. The flashbacks in particular are totally unnecessary and add padding to a film that did not need to be 100 minutes. But the dynamics of life in the prison feel very, very dated and lack much of the insight into prisons (both from documentary and fictional sources) that has accrued since. Here are a few examples:

  • The interactions among the prisoners feel safe and one-dimensional and not in anyway realistic. (An idea of a prison.) There’s one sort of prisoner boss and every other prisoner aside from Lancaster feels like an archetype. (Also, the execution of the rat is staged really hilariously.)
  • The interactions between the Warden, the Doctor, the guard captain and whoever that civilian supervisor is are just a really heavy-handed way of “discussing” different attitudes towards punishment and rehabilitation. Yes, this is a feature of prison movies but here it is really, really heavy handed. (Perhaps no more than when the doctor actually addresses the camera!)
  • The guard captain is extra mean (and a caricature) so we feel sympathy for prisoners who otherwise, Hollywood assumes, would not be sympathetic.

But, aside from the flashbacks, the film itself is pretty solid for the time. The climax is hilariously over-the-top (more like a war movie) but that kind of makes sense given when the film was made.


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