One of the noir-est of film noir, Brute Force is the ultimate prison film, the precursor of the famous Stanford prison experiment. It's is a dark and brutal look a prison life, where the walls form a warehouse of cruelty and neglect.
The biggest surprise in the film is the performance by Hume Cronyn as Capt. Munsey, head prison guard. We all know the later Cronyn -- the crusty but cuddly old geezer, often appearing with his wife, Jessica Tandy. It does not prepare you for seeing him as Munsey, a sadistic, manipulative, and cruel little man, who uses his power over the prisoners to oppress them totally. It is an astonishing performance. Munsey is the one who runs the prison, and treats his charges like a cat treats a trapped mouse. He is one of the most sadistic characters in films of that time, and the sadism is psychological more than physical. It was a clever idea to cast a small man like Cronyn in the part, and see him terrorizing those who are physically much bigger.
Burt Lancaster, in his first starring role, plays Joe Collins, one of the prisoners, who leads a jailbreak attempt. He is a basically decent man, who eventually is broken down by prison life into becoming as cruel as Munsey himself. The jailbreak is a disaster, of course, and the film is not for people who want happy endings.
For its time, its violence was shocking, though this is less to in these post-Pulp Fiction days. But what makes the film work is the role reversal, where the prisoners were essentially good people while the guards -- especially Munsey -- are scum. Plus the fascination of Cronyn's performance, as Oscar-worth as his wife's in Driving Miss Daisy.
More Great but Forgotten
Back to Chuck Rothman's page -- Force does make leaders. But you forget one thing: it also destroys them.