Brute Force (1947): Jules Dassin Directs Burt Lancaster in Grim, Message Oriented Prison Drama

Brute Force, Jules Dassin’s first foray into the crime noir genre, is one of the grimmest prison melodramas ever made.

It’s a film in which the jail serves as a microcosm of the broader American society, depicted in all its facets of immorality and amorality.

Grade: B+ (***1/2 out of *****)

Brute Force

Theatrical release

Reportedly, the filmmakers were influenced by the recent Battle of Alcatraz, in May 1946, in which prisoners determined to fight a battle rather than surrender after a failed escape attempt.

The young Burt Lancaster, right after making his splashy debut in another noir produced by Mark Hellinger, “The Killers,” is at his toughest and most handsome as Joe Collins, the timeworn prisoner who, along with his fellow inmates, lives under the totalitarian rule of the sadistic guard Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn, cast against type).

Within the walls of the isolated prison, the convicts are dehumanized and tortured by the captain and his crew.  Unable to stand idle and observe the exploitation, Collins and his fellows in Cell R17 begin to plan their liberation. Only Collins’s dreams of escape keep him going, even if the chances for success are nil.

The plan includes the help of Gallagher (reliable character actor Charles Bickford) a bigger, older man whose influence on the other convicts is crucial.  After his informer is forced to die into a huge punch press, in one of the film’s most intensely brutal scenes, the ever-vindictive Munsey resorts to acts of uncontrollable brutality in order to get information about the breakout.

The tale comes to a boiling point, when Gallagher stages a protest in the prison yard at the designated moment, as a diversion for Collins and his men.

The subsequent breakout becomes a savage eruption of brute force, as the title suggests, at the end of which all are destroyed, the inmates and their torturer Munsey.

The last reel is one of the most ferocious and explosive climaxes to be seen in a movie of the 1940s, indicating the extreme efforts that desperate men might take when fighting for their individual freedom and basic humanity.

Director Dassin had made several great film noirs, including Night and the City and The Naked City, before he was being blacklisted and then forced into exile,

Yvonne De Carlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines and Anita Colby are the women whose manipulation and seductive charms accounted, at least in part, for sending their men into jail.

Narrative Structure: Flashbacks

Each of the inmates in cell R17 tells his story, and in every case, their love for a woman is what landed them in trouble with the law.

For example, Joe’s wife Ruth (Ann Blyth) is not willing to have an operation for cancer unless Joe can be there with her.

Richard Brooks, who later became a director (including “Blackboard Jungle” in 1955 and Burt Lancaster’s Oscar winning “Elmer Gantry” in 1960), has written a sharp, bristling and often biting dialogue. Consider the following:

Gallagher: “Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you’ve served your time, or when you’re dead!”

Dr. Walters: “Force does make leaders. But you forget one thing: it also destroys them.”


Burt Lancaster as Joe Collins
Hume Cronyn as Capt. Munsey
Charles Bickford as Gallagher
Yvonne De Carlo as Gina Ferrara
Ann Blyth as Ruth Collins
Ella Raines as Cora Lister
Anita Colby as Flossie
Whit Bissell as Tom Lister
Art Smith as Dr. Walters
Sam Levene as Louie Miller #7033
Jeff Corey as “Freshman” Stack
John Hoyt as Spencer
Jack Overman as Kid Coy
Roman Bohnen as Warden A.J. Barnes
Sir Lancelot as Calypso
Vince Barnett as Muggsy


Directed by Jules Dassin
Produced by Mark Hellinger
Screenplay by Richard Brooks; story by Robert Patterson
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Edited by Edward Curtiss

Production company: Mark Hellinger Productions

Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date: July 16, 1947 (NYC); August 5, 1947 (US)

Running time: 98 minutes
Box office $2.2 million (US rentals)