Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn share an intimate moment in Brute Force

Producer Mark Hellinger died young in 1947 — he was only 44 — but he left behind a handful of pictures that remain highlights of American cinema. His penultimate production was director Jules Dassin’s drama Brute Force (screening at Pacific Film Archive this Saturday, November 27 at 7:00pm, as part of their new series “Grin, Smile, Smirk: The Films of Burt Lancaster”). Brute Force is an examination of the rot at the heart of America’s justice system: overpopulated prisons operated by sadists with more interest in professional advancement than in rehabilitation.

Five men share cramped quarters in Westgate Penitentiary’s cell R17: Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster, who ironically remains poker-faced throughout), World War II vet Soldier (Howard Duff), amateur boxer Kid Coy (Jack Overman), meek accountant Tom Lister (Whit Bissell), and con man ‘Freshman’ Stack (Jeff Corey). Westgate is ostensibly supervised by Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen), but years of duty have ground him down and left him tired and apathetic, and the real power resides in the hands of Munsey (Hume Cronyn), the prison’s devious, manipulative, and sadistic Social Darwinist head guard.

Munsey is angling for Barnes’ job and, in order to get it, actively foments unrest on the yard that will make the Warden look weak and ineffective in the eyes of state prison chief McCollum (Richard Gaines). His access to inmates’ mail (which he gets “quite a kick out of censoring”) turns some into stool pigeons and informers, including Wilson (James O’Rear), a mild-mannered con manipulated into planting a shiv on Collins.

This apostasy not only earns Collins a stretch in solitary, it also sets in motion the sort of prison anarchy Munsey needs to undermine Barnes: in a scene that remains deeply disturbing and thoroughly chilling, Wilson is crushed beneath a machine shop press by revenge-thirsty inmates while an outbreak of choreographed violence distracts the guards.

Barnes, eager to keep his job, decides a crackdown is in order and cancels all privileges and parole hearings. Collins and his cellmates begin to plot their escape with the help of prison newspaper editor and all-around fixer Gallagher (the great Charles Bickford), a Barnes ally whose reluctance to rock the boat is trumped by anger when his own chance at parole is postponed. But Munsey has planted a stoolie in their midst, and the break goes horribly wrong.

Though produced at down-at-heel Universal, Brute Force is an ‘A’-list picture all the way, featuring a powerful score by Miklos Rozsa, brilliant black-and-white cinematography by William Daniels, and expressionistic sets by John DeCuir—all of them Oscar winners, though not for this film, which garnered nary a single Academy Award nomination. No doubt its unpleasant subject matter did not impress AMPAS members.

As for its producer, Mark Hellinger was unafraid of controversy — the former journalist once said “pictures should be a lot more realistic… I don’t claim to be a genius…  but I think I know the real from the unreal”— and Brute Force marked a cinematic high-water mark for onscreen violence and sadism.

It also proudly dispensed plenty of liberal social commentary: Doc Walter (Art Smith), the film’s voice of conscience, describes the penitentiary as “a big human bomb” and opines that “when people are sick you don’t treat them by making them sicker”. Even the film’s Hays Code-enforced coda underscores its grim message: if you treat men brutally, they will pay you back in kind.

Tinseltown soon began to purge its politically incorrect fellow travelers and commie symps (among the blacklist’s victims were director Dassin and actors Bohnen, Corey, Smith, and — to a lesser extent — Duff), and it would be a long time before prison brutality would again be examined as frankly as it is in this film. We can only imagine what would have happened to Hellinger during the Red Scare, but his artistic legacy has long since been assured, not least thanks to this powerful film.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...