Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose #31: No Escaping Noir (Scene from Brute Force)

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  • What role does music (especially the record playing Wagner) play in the intensity of this scene?

The music acts as a sort of diversion from the violent nature of beating.  Instead of showing blows music jars us when the volume is brought up. The orchestrated music only heightens the intensity making it seem more immense and larger.  

 

  • Based on what you've learned in this class, how does this scene fit in with your understanding of early postwar film noir (films released in 1946 and 1947) and the development of the noir style and substance?

I can see dark existential themes at play.  If the title 'Brute Force' doesn't convince the audience of the dismal subject the look and feel certainly will all in line with postwar film noir (i.e. 1946 and 1947). Interesting to see stories play on the reactions and emotional responses to what takes place from each of the secondary characters depicted.  

 

I've learned that once the movement seemed to be at it's peek is also when the film noir seemed to no longer identify itself with new territory in the genre.  The cinematic techniques were standout but most of it's substance had been explored pretty thoroughly after the late 40's. 

 

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What role does music (especially the record playing Wagner) play in the intensity of this scene?

  • At first it seems odd, but we eventually see that the volume is used to make the prisoner think the beating will not be heard by anyone - although I suspect the Captain is aware that his staff can hear it just fine. But when he raises the volume to symbolize that it's *on*, the pan around the room to the military images and photos clearly show that the Captain is getting pumped up the way an athlete uses music for a workout or prior to a game. And of course, the editor is made acutely aware it's going to get far worse.
  • The staff, hearing the volume, know what's up and clearly are uncomfortable with the tactics but afraid to challenge the Captain. Could there be more overt reference to the rise of Nazi Germany while many countries watched it happen while their apathy and fear prevented them from stepping in?
  • Of course, Apocalypse Now probably trumps the Wagner/violence arc.

 

 

Based on what you've learned in this class, how does this scene fit in with your understanding of early postwar film noir (films released in 1946 and 1947) and the development of the noir style and substance?

  • Feelings of alienation, despair and hopelessness are certainly amplified in a prison movie, from the strict regulations (designed to make you trip up), the confinement and especially the feeling of powerlessness against authority - much like the warden juggles his good (professional) and evil (uh...he's a vicious psychopath!) personas.
  • People were confused about the world order and getting their first taste of wondering whether the government was telling us the whole truth. Authorities are now portrayed as potentially criminal, no longer the automatic do-gooders.
  • On that point, we see "guilty until proven innocent" in this scene, something that would become even more prevalent in the McCarthy hearings soon to come. And of course the Captain fabricates a story without batting an eye.
  • Visually other noir symbols - darkening the room, subservient position of the editor versus the power positions (behind, on the desk) of the Captain; removing his shirt and placing the rubber hose on the desk to create anticipation before the beating, figuratively "washing his hands" of the incident afterwards.

Great movie with a great cast and wonderful cinematography, a must-watch title.

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Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) is a badass, in the worst way. The point where he turns up the music to cover the severity of the beating is distrubing to no end. Of course, he isn't very concerned about covering it all up...such arrogance and such "brute force" is astounding. I need to watch this in its entirety.

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I'm coming in a bit late to this daily dose. As what most people have already stated, music during scenes of brutality often act as a diversion if not sanitizing the scene for the audience. It may also be a way of decreasing the anxiety of the audience because the music is generally soothing or upbeat. As in this film, other notable films with upbeat or soothing songs during painfully brutal scenes:

 

 

Sam Cooke's Blue Moon during the transformation scene in American Werewolf in London.

Goodbye Horses in Silence of the Lambs

Stuck in the Middle with You during the infamous ear splitting scene in Reservoir Dogs.

Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now.

 

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Music and scenes of violence go hand in hand.  The louder the music, the worse the violence.  Hume Cronyn surprised me in this role.

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What role does music (especially the record playing Wagner) play in the intensity of this scene?

- The selection of this piece of classical music reflects and enhances the up and down mood and dialogue of the scene.  The volume, especially when Capt Munsey turns it up informs of the increasing severity of the beating and the discomfort of the prison guards outside of the Munsey’s office.

 

Based on what you've learned in this class, how does this scene fit in with your understanding of early postwar film noir (films released in 1946 and 1947) and the development of the noir style and substance?

- In this period many of the ‘bad guys’ are institutions or people in positions that we trust to be the ‘good guys’, which is more cynical and unsettling than Marlowe chasing blackmailers.

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OOOH, closing the curtains and pumping up the classical music, while the shadows and smacking sounds compete with each other in a rough ballet of violence.  The choice of Wagner - a Nazi favorite - and the Hilterite photo of the captain draws a straight parallel to the tenor and tone of the post-war era.  But then again, the title Brute Force says it all.

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This clip from Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (Mark Hellinger/Universal) contrasts opposite tones throughout Captain Munsey’s (Hume Cronyn) interrogation/beating of Louis (Sam Levene).

 

Initially, Munsey is calm, at time mild mannered, even sounding polite.  His tone of dialogue when he asks Louis what he was doing in the drainpipe could have been, “may I offer you some more tea?”  The Wagner music, as many others have pointed out, suggests a certain intellectual or cultured environment.  Cronyn’s physical stature is fairly diminutive, certainly relative to someone like Sterling Hayden, or Burt Lancaster for example.  The decoration of Cronyn’s office, the calm tone of his voice, his physique, all contrast with the savagery of his actions against Levene.  This creates an unpredictable and terrifying aspect to Cronyn’s behavior, which escalates with the volume of the phonograph.

 

One question I have regarding this clip is after the initial beating with the rubber hose, Cronyn turns up the volume on the phonograph and steps back to Levene.  There are three cutaway shots, the spinning record, a planter next to the window with a gun rack in the background and shot of the wall with Cronyn’s framed portrait.  Are we meant to believe that while we see the cutaway shots Cronyn is again beating Levene although we don’t hear the beating?  There’s something off about this particular moment.

 

Thematically, Brute Force likens the prison to a Nazi prisoner of war/death camp with Munsey acting like a commandant dictator outside the rule of law.  For those interested, there’s a Marxist interpretation and analysis of Brute Force on the Criterion website by Village Voice film critic Michael Atkinson titled, “Screws and Proles.”

 

-Mark

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We've touched on the use of music several times over the past few weeks and its effect on the viewer within the context of films noir.  Here I feel the Dassin chose the Wagner to piece for two reasons. 

First, to further the Nazi overtones of the entire scene. 

 

Post-war audiences would have been very familiar with Nazi propaganda films and news clips which used Wagner's music extensively.  In fact, immediately following the point where the Captain turns up the music Dassin cuts to two very fascist-like shots; the drapes hanging like swastika and the up low-angle shot of the Hitleresque photo of the Captain could have been ripped from a nazi propaganda film.

 

Second, the score is used throughout the scene to heighten the audiences sense of dread and fear.  Not only by drawing on their shared experiences of the recent horrors of the Nazi regime but also by manipulating the psyche.  He alternates between Wagner's score and the diegetic sound of the interrogation.  Notice when he cuts to the other guards it's the diegetic sound we hear, like us, no making us empathize with the helpless guards as if we were actually there.  This is followed by a return to the office where the Captain turns up the volume.  This increase in volume is an intentional trick to hook the viewers consciousness on the dread and fear of the scene.

 

This is one of the best doses ever. 

 

 

 

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Just watched The Big Heat this afternoon, and this scene reminded me of the scene in which Lee Marvin beats Gloria Grahame while a group of cardplayers sits in silence and does nothing.  In both scenes, one character gets up from his seat in frustration, but does nothing to actually stop the brutality in the next room.  Sickening.


 


Wagner's antisemitism was what drew Hitler to his compositions.  The choice of Wagner clearly connects to the Nazis, who were beyond brutal.  As the music volume rises, and the tone of the music becomes more excited, the beating becomes more brutal.


 


The beating in this film is an analogy of the beating the Germans inflicted on most of Europe before and during WWII.  The men in the next room sit in silence, doing nothing to protect or rescue - similar to what the U.S. did before December 1941.  


 


Quite a damning statement.


 


 


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Wagner's music has been associated with Hitler and his murderous Third Reich.  Using this music under the warden's eager, illegal beating of the prisoner adds an extra dose of depravity to the scene.  In addition, the guards can hear the beating inside the warden's office over the sounds of the record player but, though angered by the injustice, like much of the German populace, do not interfere.

 

This scene from "Brute Force" is a good example of early postwar noir; blending formalism and realism to counterpunch, heightening the tension and suspense.  In addition, the hopelessness of the prisoner's plight is an example of the influence of Existentialist ideas in the postwar period.  The prisoners are helpless and hopeless in the face of their captivity.

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Journey into Fear and Apocalypse Now, are two different films that use two different pieces of music to imply a certain calculated assault. The fat assassin in Journey systematically plays his ritualistic record as he prepares for his day/assassination. It is an opera I believe, a passionate cry in the vein of Carl Orff, but not as intense as Carmina Burana. Never the less it is a methodical psychological key that unlocks the assassins capabilities to perform acts that otherwise would weigh on him morally. In Apocalypse Now, it is Wagner's, Flight of the Valkyries playing from the Huey helicopters as they descend upon the the enemy during the vietnam war. Again a preparation for an atrocity. 
 

It escapes me at the moment but another film from a couple of weeks ago on the Summer of Darkness line up featured a night club owner who hides his identity behind his own in-house "brute" who likes to beat people up to classical music is almost the same as this Brute Force. The difference being of course that here the police chief is the psychopath and not the criminals. His officers are afraid of him too. They are fed up and can't do anything about it though fully aware of their chief's sickness. 

 

There is an intellect associated with the use of music. It can't be denied that the perpetrator is fully aware of his crime and so validates his crime with the way in which the music chosen is a historical record of past inhumane behavior. History repeating itself. 

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This clip from Brute Force is savagely violent. As with the unmerciful beating in Desperate, the blows are thankfully off screen. In addition to hearing the beating in this film, we have the added element of the loud music increasing the intensity and drama. The music here is not just a score, but an actual element in the film, manipulated by the attacker, to purposefully drown out the violence that is about to take place. The pounding is so loud, however, that the beating is heard above the music and outside the room by many. Many who merely sit quiet and let it occur. Here again, as in The Asphalt Jungle, we have a collaborative secrecy.

 

The use of turning the music up to either drown out or drive away something is a recurring theme in film noir. We see it here in Brute Force, as well as The Asphalt Jungle when the cops enter the diner, The Blue Gardenia after the long night of drinking, and The Prowler to remind Van Heflin's character that Keyes' husband is not at home. It is a poetic way for the characters to confess they are aware of their wrongdoings, attempting to hide their immoral behavior. 

 

What is most disturbing in this clip from Brute Force is the Captain's very casual washing of his hands following the attack. It's as mundane as brushing your teeth or combing your hair and it clues us in that this type of beating is standard. Add to that his orders that the blame is to be put on the victim and he is to be punished in solitary is downright horrendous.

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I think the only film I remember seeing Hume Cronyn before was in the TV remake of 12 Angry Men as an old man  :D It was surprising to see him this violent. Great performance, BTW.

 

As for the DD question, the film conveys the message of savage authorities, corrupt officers... I think the most effective moment to transmit this was with the shot of Cronyn's framed picture (distinguished, elegant) while he is brutally beating the man. It served to contrast the two-faced nature of the man, or institutions themselves.

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One of the first things that struck about this scene was when Captain Munsey increases the sound on the record player. Up until that point I had thought the music was non-diegetic, or coming from the soundtrack, and not a record that was playing in the room. I had thought that the music gave the entire scene an operatic quality. We get the sense that this is a routine for Captain Munsey, he has done this with other prisoners and would continue to do so. The drawing of the curtains to shut out the light, to black out the rays of sunshine coming from the outside, to the placement of the rubber hose (believe it or not, I had not realized this was an actually thing) on the desk, is all to put Louis into a frightened mindset, to see if the fear of violence will work rather than actual violence. As Captain Munsey gets angrier and starts to savagely beat Louis, the music rises in pitch, and I got the feeling that perhaps the anger was not just because Louis refused to talk, but that the little ceremony prior to the beating was not enough to get him to. Louis is the one forcing this beating, by simply not giving up the answers that Captain Munsey already knows. It's inconsequential whether or not Louis gives up the information, but his refusal cannot be tolerated.

 

Much like the beating in Desperate, the worst of it occurs off camera, but rather than being dragged off-screen, the camera takes on the viewpoint of the audience, by averting our gaze and looking at anything else around the room. This is an everyday office, filled with objects you would expect to find in anyone's office, even your own. Right now, it's the place of awful violence, that sense of the dark forces of noir invading supposed safe havens. Just outside the door, we see other prison employees who are just as uneasy with what is happening as we are. They should be protecting prisoners from other prisoners, and not inflicting pain and suffering on them even if it is to get information regarding the security of the prison. They appear frustrated, as if this type of thing is all too common, and they have seen it, or heard it, one too many times. Even while paying your debt to society, you are not free from those dark forces, and the people in charge, and responsible for maintaining order, can be just as vicious and violent as those they are supposed to be guarding.

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The Wagner record is fascinating because with it they use a sound associated with a higher musical form while a primitive beating is handed out. It also could be seen as a metaphor to the thuggery of Nazis who loved Wagner. Thus the director is illustrating that the cruelty and harshness perceived to be abroad is actually at home, in the USA. 

 

This film draws on a sense of paranoia and frustration found in the Postwar period.It also features a heavy use of dark lighting and dark atmospherics dementing that the times are not peaches and cream. The noir style is seen in the anxiety of the characters, the violence they will resort too and the overwhelming sense of  brutality hitting home.

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The clausterphobia of the scene is striking.  The darkened room, the crowded table outside the room, the closeups. And what looks like progress is shown to be a cycle. The beating itself is shown to be routine and the after the record is turned up, the reflection of it spinning is revealed to show that even the great progressions of Wagner are encapsulated in their own rotation. Truly there is No Exit here!

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I liked this scene when he pulled the shades down and turned the music up to kind of mask the sounds of the beating.

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I really don't like seeing Hitler in every appearance of Wagner's music. Wagner is really something more and older than that nazi cook. I agree it is a perfect background for gestapo-like beating here, but it is still a cliche. Well, maybe Captain Mussey is just pretentious. As soon as we see Mussey without a shirt we know there's going to be „a bloody massacre”. All those preparations – closing the roller-blinds, placing a billy club on the desk are supposed to terrify the man that is about to be interrogated. Mussey thinks he is so sophisticated, so exceptional, so powerful. And the truth is he is a plain sociopath. And as almost always – people see/hear it and no one does a thing. The „highest” form of protest is walking away. That's the way the SYSTEM works.


And using the term „fascist” to every brute psycho is really an exaggeration. I understand the context of 1947, but the postwar era is not only the reminiscence of nazism, it's also the beginning of the witch-hunt for commies and as we all know Dassin was one of the victims of the unfamous blacklisting.


The unjustified violence, sociopaths with power are unfortunately universal issues. It happens in every country, in every nation, but we still use the same cliches today...


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This clip from Brute Force reminds me of a scene from The Boys from Brazil (1978) in which Joseph Mengele (Gregory Peck) is listening to classical music (don't remember whether it was Wagner or not) before checking up on the progress of the assassins he's sent out to help put his 'master plan' into action. Both films demonstrate an interesting juxtaposition between those who perceive themselves to be cultured and brutality.

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