Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947)

Screening: Saturday, October 20, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

Director Jules Dassin marries prison drama and film noir in his 1947 film Brute Force, screening this Saturday as the second installment of our MoMA American Indies film series. As it turns out, film noir’s dark shadows, existential quandaries, and futile human suffering within an amoral universe finds a fitting home in the prison drama, where men wile away life’s hours fueled only by the hope of escape. Brute Force performs a kind of second chapter to every film noir of the period–as if the men behind bars in this film were once the doomed protagonists wandering the rainy streets of the noir genre. As Michael Atkinson describes in his essay for the Criterion Collection edition of the film:

“Singularly among prison film characters, the cons we meet (escape plotter Burt Lancaster, romantic Whit Bissell, centrist gang leader Charles Bickford, urbane playboy John Hoyt, manly martyr Howard Duff, huddled as if in a tribal tent) are all morally righteous men with large hearts, either guilty of a harmless crime, of thievery in the  name of love, or not guilty of anything we’re told about at all.”

Like most prison dramas, Brute Force revolves around the prospect and plans of escape, but by picturing a noir world that put away such good men, Brute Force’s bleak, leading question becomes, what exactly are these men escaping to?

That this film invokes this question in 1947, pushes the concept of escape onto the metaphorical ground of global politics. The world was just assessing its own “escape” from WWII after all, and the unparalleled evil of the war’s atrocities left many wondering what kind of a world was waiting for them on the other side of conflict. Brute Force insists ever more fervently on bearing the weight of this global metaphor by aligning its vermin-esque Captain (Hume Cronyn) with the aesthetics and rhetoric of Fascism. Amidst an unforgettable, gritty finale that must have shook audiences in 1947 even more than it rattles us today, Brute Force begs the loaded question, what does it mean to truly escape?

Reserve tickets for the Saturday, October 20 screening of Brute Force here.

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