Monday 14 March 2016

Brute Force - John Conomos reports on a cable viewing of Jules Dassin's noir masterpiece (previously published on Facebook)

Two nights ago I caught up with Jules Dassin's searing noir prison drama Brute Force (USA. 1947) on TCM after having not seen it for awhile. I first saw it back in the late 60s/early 70s and it still remains, for me, one of my favourite noir films, particularly in terms of the classic Hollywood prison genre. Truth be told, one of my abiding passions (since the 1960s) has been collecting first or early editions of hard-boiled crime novels, movie posters and related movie memorabilia, jazz criticism (amongst other kinds as well: art, literary and cultural ) and, of course, running parallel to my ubiquitous cinephilia has been my fever for American popular music ( jazz of course, excluding Dixie, and the American classic songbook).
Hume Cronyn & Burt Lancaster in Brute Force
One of my most prized movie posters hanging in the corridor of our house alongside a poster of Samuel Fuller's Run of the Arrow (USA, 1957), which I was lucky to come across in Tasmania in the early 1970s,  is Brute Force. Its bold, expressionist iconography, which included that of Burt Lancaster himself (' one of the men inside ' as the trailer informs us in case we miss out on the film' s dramaturgical male/female binary) is located off centre but, as you expect with BL, in a large dramatic pictorial scale, and one of my most prized alluring actresses when I was a teenager experiencing , let us say, the predictable hormonal emotions and wet dreams of that particular stage in one's life, one of the sirens in noir and of the 40s in general in Hollywood, Yvonne De Carlo.
There were moments  when I thought I was Kirk Douglas lashed to his mast heading for a certain rocky death because of the sirens tempting him to such a fate. Back to our Canadian-American siren . There she is in the background , but still in palpable pictorial terms to seduce our existentially conflicted and tortured protagonist whose main goal in his lifeworld is to break out of prison. De Carlo is one of several women who figure in the lives of Lancaster's cell mates and in one way or another are responsible in varying degree for their imprisonment. The remaining actresses who are on the outside include Ella Raines, Ann Blyth, and Anita Corby.
Miklos Rosza
Among the many appealing aesthetic, stylistic, performative and sonic registers of Dassin's film is the stunning percussive poetry of Miklos Rosza's film score. Just a note or two of MR's dramatically fatalistic and compelling urgent compositional palette and you are his like a mountain trout dangling off his fishing line. He is one of the most distinctive noir composers and with that memorable sweeping staccato score of his to Robert Siodmak's classic noir The Killers (USA, 1945) which introduce us to the doomed Hemingway hero "the Swede'' ( BL) and set the overall remarkable glissando style of Rosza's oeuvre . It is interesting to note that Rosza's film scores have been, as he once said, shaped by his lifelong concern for absolute concrete music. ( Rosza described his life as being 'a double life' in this context.) He contributed to some of the definitive noir films of the era including Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA,1944), Criss Cross  (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1949) , The Lost Weekend  (Billy Wilder,USA,1945), and Naked City (Jules Dassin, USA, 1948 with Frank Skinner), amongst other notable works.
Being a prison drama and set in the key of noir, what runs at the emotional core of the film's claustrophobic and cruel dramaturgical world is its underlying concern for social reform and penology. Of course , this specific concern of the prison genre can be traced back to the thirties with their schematic social and criminal concerns of social injustice, crime , rehabilitation and the old traditional environment vs nurture causation of crime itself. Art Smith, who plays the stoical and sympathetic prison doctor , is emblematic of the defining thematic questions of the prison genre itself. Given that Mark Hellinger, the journalist turned film producer, produced Brute Force for Universal Pictures and was also scripted by journalist and newsman Richard Brooks ) this explains its main gritty , hard-hitting preoccupation with criminology and prison reform.

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