Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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Wagner wrote music which represented to many people the Nazi glorification of fascist doctrine.  Here we see the brutal beating of a suspect by a police officer who uses this music to drown out the sounds of the beating and on another level to convey a notion that this is justifiable because the man is a suspect and the police officer represents the state.

There is a thread throughout many (not all) of these films that the police are corrupt and this is obvious here.  Despite the obvious illegality of the treatment of the prisoner and the minor discomfort of a few members, most of the officers do not react to this abuse.

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For this clip, the Curator's note says: "As the Film Noir Encyclopedia states: "The essence of Jules Dassin's Brute Force is violence. Functioning as a blatant allegory for an existential vision of the world (Sartre's No Exit can be seen as a theatrical counterpart), the prison of Brute Force becomes a living hell from which escape is impossible."

 

I have not yet seen Brute Force, but I have read No Exit, and violence plays no part in it. I suspect it would be more appropriate to say that in the film there is no escape from violence, just as in the play, the three people imprisoned in Hell cannot escape each other (no exit from the room is available - the door is locked), even though, ironically there is a point in the play when the door opens, but Joseph decides he must stay until Ines trusts him - and that is never going to happen, ha ha).

 

I may be prejudiced by having first read the play in French. Sartre titled it Huis Clos, which does not translate well into English. In French, huis clos refers to a conversation behind closed doors, and that is what takes place in the play, between the two women and the man who find themselves locked in a room together for all eternity with only each other for company. The catch, of course, is that they quickly learn that they cannot stand each other - hence the "hell is other people" quote often associated with Sartre. When translated into English, Huis Clos is changed to No Exit, which is definitely not even close to a literal translation, but it effectively explains the situation.   

 

I don't know if Jules Dassin was familiar with No Exit, but it seems very plausible that he would have been, or at least that he would have some familiarity with European existentialism. I think watching a handcuffed man get beaten with a rubber pipe would have more appeal to the red-blooded American film goer than listening to three people making each other miserable with conversations. As I type this, I am thinking of an exception - the conversations between Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  That 1966 film is considered a "black comedy-drama" (source: the unimpeachable Wikipedia) and not a film noir, but I am wondering about that distinction and classification now that I have begun my journey to learn about film noir.   

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The music by Wagner expresses the fascism of the prison. There are classes about Wagner and his influence on Hitler. The picture of Captain Munsey is reminiscent of pictures of Hitler. Like Hitler Hugh Cronyn does not fit the image of the sadistic person he is.

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http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2014/01/25/article-2545770-1AF2A6D200000578-747_306x423.jpg

 

As in Desperate the beating in Brute Force is done off camera. When the blinds are pulled the chiaroscuro lighting is perfect. The beating occurs with the “rubber hose” police were supposedly so well known for using.

 

The guards in the other room give the pain of the beating you can hear being given to Sam Levene in the grimace one guard gives, then another throwing away his cards in frustration at what is going on. As the movie shows Munsey gets nothing from giving the beating, despite what Hollywood in movies like Zero Dark Thirty would like us to believe.

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In this clip from Brute Force (1947) music is used to help drown out the sounds of the beating Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) applies to prisoner Louis (Sam Levene).  Another possible purpose is to put the audience expectations at ease with the calm classical music by suggesting Captain Munsey as a more sophisticated individual preparing to engage in a civilized conversation with an inmate (sic).  On the darker side, maybe it was on purpose that the Captain chose to play Wagner knowing his music was from Adolf Hitler's favorite composer and seeing how Munsey is an iron-fisted (fascist) authoritarian warden (wardenfuhrer) and rules/laws did not apply to him. This could be warning the audience that the war was over but not the ideas behind the causes. Don't try this in your country!  Or this could be a theme of juxtaposing something very beautiful, the classical music side by side with something very dark, a violent and brutal torture of a helpless individual.  A theme, incidentally well explored by Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange (1971) where inmate Alex (Malcolm McDowell) was forced to watch acts of violence (which he enjoyed) however the scenes were accompanied by a classical music score by Beethoven, whom he loved but did not appreciate associating this brilliant composer with vulgar violence (go figure).  Once Captain Munsey doesn't get the answers he's looking for, the tension is upped a notch as the window shades are drawn, the room goes dark, and the standing guard (only other witness) is excused from the room.  It seemed like the music became louder and "wrong answer" Louis knows what's coming.  The rubber hose and the music volume is up another notch!  The guards in the next room hear the sounds of the assault and are unnerved at what they know is happening but they do nothing, just as some of Raymond Burr's henchmen thought he was going too far in Desperate (1947) but the beating continued.  Notice how Hume Cronyn's character, who really worked up a sweat, washes the blood off his hands after learning Louis was innocent of what he was accused.  The shades are raised, there's light in the room, the Captain didn't get his answers but his hands are clean, Louis is bloodied and sore from his accident coming from the drain pipe and is on his way to the isolation ward.  But it's not all bad, we got to listen to some really good Wagner!

 

  These early postwar films seemed to dwell in the dynamics of violence much more than the earlier noir releases and about character types who thrive on psychotic behavior as lessons in violence we learned from World War II.  I'm sure things will only get worse as we move into the early 50s, the Cold War, the Red scare and the blacklist.  Just when you thought it couldn't get any darker on the screen.  Duck and cover everybody and don't stare into the light!             

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A scene just as painfully brutal as yesterday's DDD. And some similar techniques used here - shots from below to make the brute appear more imposing, and a cutaway during the worst blows where we hear only the sound and see the reactions of others. Hume Cronyn may be physically far less imposing than Raymond Burr but his bearing and mannerisms make up for it - the slow, deliberate walk, the condescending way he talks to Louis (Sam Levene), how he's taken off his shirt to keep to keep it from getting stained, and of course how he plays a bit of Wagner to drown out the less pleasant sounds and also to season the proceedings with a dash of culture. A brute with refinement and good taste is so much more sinister than one who's just a brute.

 

Which brings me to the substantive difference between yesterday's and today's scene - Capt. Munsey is a thug with a badge. He has all the trappings of authority at his disposal. This, I think, is something that came into noir in the postwar period and continued through into the 1950's  - the filmmakers dared to show abuse of institutional power, the ugly side of authority. The audience, now that the war was over, didn't need comforting and distraction so much any more and was receptive to more grit and realism in the movies. And with the outside enemy vanquished, it was no longer unpatriotic to look inward and expose the ugly blemishes in our own institutions of power and authority.

 

I suppose the association of Wagner with the Nazis was very present in peoples' minds at the time, as it is now. But that said, the music itself is lovely and the composer gets a bad rap because his themes of Nordic mythology were so adored by the Nazis.

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

 

Its referencing the music played at the Nazi death camps, it's been repeated as a homage very notably in Sergio Leone's The Good The Bad And The Ugly in the Tuco (Eli Wallach) Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) beating sequence with a live Confederate orchestra outside the cabin where Wallace (Mario Brega) the sergeant is brutalizing Tuco. The civilized music offsetting the barbarity.  

 

-- 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?

 

It clearly takes into account recent events in Europe & the Pacific and weaves them into the story-lines.

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The rising crescendo of the music matches the rising tension in this clip. Hume Cronyn's slight stature and soft-spoken manner mixed with the brutality he was showing gave a dichotomy that increased ruthlessness of the situation.

 

As mentioned by riffraff, juxtaposition of classical music and violence has been explored in movies such as "Clockwork Orange". For me "Rollerball" is another movie that comes to mind, although the director said one of the reasons he chose classical music was so he would not date the film. The bringing together of classical music and violence reminds us that oftentimes things are not what they seem and there is darkness bubbling below the surface. Wagner's music is, to this day, tied to Hitler so I'm sure that was a conscious choice of the Dassin's. However, I agree with Egythea_A Wagner's music has gotten kind of a bad rap.

 

In the case of this clip the dichotomy between the classical music and the violence enhances the dichotomy between authority figures that should represent good but are in fact perpetrating evil acts. Hitler came into power in what was a democratic society. Postwar Hollywood was now taking a look at our own country by examining social issues and giving us cautionary tales about taking the same path Germany did.

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As this scene opens a guard is standing behind a seated prisoner who is being interrogated by someone  assumed to be the warden.  The guard is holding a nightstick (billy club, baton, sap , etc,) which is an implied threat.  The warden is wearing an A-shirt, also pejoratively known as a "wife beater".  Being unsuccessful, the warden closes the shades, the guard leaves, the music is playing, the warden picks up a club and the scene is set.  We hear the beating rather than see it as do a group of people in another room.  Although they are obviously disturbed by the sounds they do nothing.  At one point the warden increases the sound of the music.  Dassin decides to stop the sound of the beating at this point and instead let the music and the shots of the inside of the warden's office indicate the increase in intensity.  Realizing he is unsuccessful, the warden calls the guard back in.  As he calmly washes his hands the guard raises the shades.  They have done this before.  The prisoner is still alive.

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I was horrified to see Hume Cronyn playing a sadistic cop beating on a "prison newspaper reporter?".  I will never look at him the same again.  I got the impression of a little man, who was always picked on, taking revenge on anybody he has authority over.  It was reminiscent of yesterday's clip where Raymond Burr was watching a beating, while even his henchman looked on with nervousness at the extremes he was going to.  I was encouraged that the cops were uncomfortable with his actions, even though they did nothing to stop him.  There was a definite corollary to the Nazis and the people who 'turned a blind eye" to what was happening. 

 

Unlike yesterday's clip, I do not plan on watching this one.  Artistry in the craft of movie making is not enough for me to sit through this one.

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Music within this scene does greatly heighten the matter at hand. The music builds to a louder and more powerful effect as Captain Munsey's anger mounts. Its intensity grows with Munsey's intensity. They, in a sense, become fused as one. The scene we witness (with Munsey's facial expressions, club in hand, etc) is the equivalent of what we hear (the music being played.)

 

Dassin cutting to a photo of Captain Munsey on the wall, with the music blaring at an intensifying effect indicates a tyrant at play. Munsey's method of interrogation is common knowledge amongst his fellow officers, but no one dares to speak out against him, let alone actually try to stop him. They, like suspects, are under his rule as well.

 

Brute Force and many other films of this time were all reflective of negative feelings and attitudes after the war. The films were never about filmmakers just telling a story. It was about a much larger issue; the hopelessness, loss, struggle, and uneasiness in life. It was pure catharsis.

 

The majority of the beating occurs in darkness. The light is literally blackened out by Captain Munsey who effectively creates the mood of not only the film, but also the mood of the postwar period. This darkness reinforces both the dangers within a film noir, and the feelings consuming people during that time.

 

There is a great representation and contrast within this scene. As Captain Munsey represents the feelings/attitudes, Louis is in the position of the civilians in being beaten down repeatedly by the aspects (Captain Munsey) of daily life created following the war. There was never a solid sense of relief, and films noir provided an accurate depiction of that specific time period.

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I think Hume Cronyn is a brilliant actor and I think he did everything he could to make this scene work but I don’t think he’s very intimidating.

I love the existential theme in this scene and I certainly see how it lends itself to the noir style. On the other hand, I don’t think this film shows particularly good craftsmanship let alone art. I think the fact that we’re not shown the violence directly is more a product of the Hays code than an artistic choice. If we had a swinging lamp in this scene, or shadows on the wall perhaps, it would have been clichéd but it would have shown some craftsmanship.

This is the sort of film that should be “re-made.” I haven’t seen it, but I suspect it has some compelling ideas. Perhaps with different actor’s and contemporary technology and sensibilities it could be quite good.

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How current is this today?  We see the authorities, caught on camera, beat/kill/shoot what looks like innocent people.  Just as this scene shows the sheer futile attempt to get a confession from someone not guilty, we see how life in the noir world  or postwar world a life filled with injustice and cruelty.  The analogy of Nazi state and the music and Hitler were all of course dead on.  We are always or should be always aware of state/authority abuse and fight to control the excessive that could lead to repeat of history and or fight the complacency that can happen when, we hear but do nothing, we see but look the other way.   Noir can teach us how not to be and how we learned how to be, not only reflective but pushed into action.  Just as the cards hit the table hard, but nothing is done, we can see how wrong it is and now stand for a better ending.  Everything is relative to a open mind.

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Daily Dose of Darkness #31:

No Escaping Noir (Scene from Brute Force)

 

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

The captain is using the music as a cover for his interrogation and the beating of the prisoner. The other guards in the prison can still hear the blows, and so can the viewer. But he eventually turns the music up even louder. During this time, we see mundane details of the captain’s office: the record player (with the LP reflected in the top!), the plants by the window, the captain’s portrait on the wall. This is his territory. We can be fairly certain that the beating will stop when the music does and that the music isn’t a way to relax or enjoy life. The only thing the captain seems to enjoy is intimidation.

• 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?

The scene makes me feel as trapped as the prisoner. He’s shackled and has no chance to escape. It’s reminiscent of the theater of the absurd: He doesn’t seem to know anything about a planned prison escape, but he’s getting beaten anyway. The overall mood is one of defeat, resignation, violence, despair. The postwar world is just as bleak as existential philosophy maintains. To be honest, this clip was eerie, and not because of the violence alone. It makes me think of recent events, for example, the prison escapees in New York. The clip is disturbing, which I believe it’s supposed to be, and on that basis alone I would have to say that it was successful filmmaking. But do I want to watch the whole movie? I guess I’ll have to find out by giving it a try.

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Brute Force

 

Here are a few discussion starters (though feel free to come up with your own):

 

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

 

The music helps the audience follow along with the intensity and anticipation of the action. The faster the beat indicates that the guy will come to great harm. In addition, when music gets louder, we know greater harm is going to come to the man in the chair. Most importantly, the music is used to cover the beating that is going on.

 

-- 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?

 

Because America was coming out of the war, a significant amount of film noir was turning toward the realities of violence and many men came back wounded, especially, emotionally. This allowed them in turn to act in a way not seen prior to the war.

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I was horrified to see Hume Cronyn playing a sadistic cop beating on a "prison newspaper reporter?". I will never look at him the same again. I got the impression of a little man, who was always picked on, taking revenge on anybody he has authority over. It was reminiscent of yesterday's clip where Raymond Burr was watching a beating, while even his henchman looked on with nervousness at the extremes he was going to. I was encouraged that the cops were uncomfortable with his actions, even though they did nothing to stop him. There was a definite corollary to the Nazis and the people who 'turned a blind eye" to what was happening.

 

Unlike yesterday's clip, I do not plan on watching this one. Artistry in the craft of movie making is not enough for me to sit through this one.

I agree with your post. This clip made me uncomfortable too and I can understand your decision not to watch the movie. However I think sometimes it's a filmmaker's goal to make us feel uncomfortable. If something makes us feel uneasy enough when we see it on the screen we will take action when we see it in real life and not be like the officers that just sat by in this clip. That being said, I've decided not to watch movies because it was beyond my tolerance level - but I think I will watch this one.Thanks for giving me a chance to climb on my soapbox :)
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Much of Wagner's music is dark and foreboding and the piece chosen for this sound track adds to the sinster and evil mood of the film  clip. Using classical music, as an art form, to cover up a crime, by a public figure intrusted with authority, has existential overtones. Mixing the beautiful creative efforts of humanity with the base and depraved gives a contrast that reflects the philosophy of an unfathonable world struggling to understand itself. We should see the brutality not as an endorsement of violence by the filmaker but rather as a reflection of ourselves as we are-- or of what we can become.

 

Both realism and formalism are evident in this clip making it fit in nicely with what I've learned in this class. The warden stripped to his under shirt, ready for "work", says a lot without words. The dismissal of the uniformed police officer also tells us that nothing good can be in store for the handcuffed prisioner. The fear on the face of the prisoner in the close up shot adds imesurable tension and angst. The use of light and shadow is always used to powerful effect as it is here-- re: the black  bars over the windows highlighted by bright sunlight streaming through, which is immediately cut off as the shades are pulled down suggesting evil and perhaps even death. All humanity is not depraved, however, as one police officer reacts quickly and negatively upon hearing the beating--the eternal struggle between good and evil is alive and well in this noir film. But we know that good will not triumph ( completely ) as several characters will suffer and at least one will die before the film ends.

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I forgot one thing: The actor playing the prisoner in this clip was fantastic. Before the beating begins, he knows it's coming, and in spite of the fact that he's shackled and sitting in a chair, he cringes. In fact, he leans so far to the right that he's almost offscreen. I think it dramatizes the violence even more. I could feel myself getting tense at the same time.

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Munsey vigorously washes his hands after he exacted his horrific method of interrogation in order to extract information from a prospective stool pigeon. He uses a stiff brush and really goes at it, if only for a brief period of time.

 

Can handwashing be thought of as synonymous with ridding one's self of, not only the obvious, but of guilt? I make a reference to MacBeth and Lady MacBeth's handwashing scene where she constantly washes her hands in order to dispose of her guilt.

I realize that it's a bit of a stretch but, could Munsey be subconsciously washing away his guilt?

Or, could it just mean that when he washes his hands, he is marking the end of that little dirty bit of business?

 

A drainpipe is an avenue by which unwanted material is diposed of. Prisoners in a drainpipe suggests they are considered nothing more than the rubbish that empties into it. I see a correlation here. Munsey's guilt and the remains of his reprehensible deed are also washed down the drainpipe.

 

While I appreciate everything that went into the making of this movie, I am, typically, not a fan of prison movies. While Brute Force promises to be an "on the edge of your seat" film, I think I will take a pass.

 

However, I will look forward to everyone's comments.

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Munsey vigorously washes his hands after he exacted his horrific method of interrogation in order to extract information from a prospective stool pigeon. He uses a stiff brush and really goes at it, if only for a brief period of time.

 

Can handwashing can be thought of as synonymous with ridding one's self of, not only the obvious, but of guilt? I make a reference to MacBeth and Lady MacBeth's handwashing scene where she constantly washes her hands in order to dispose of her guilt.

I realize that it's a bit of a stretch but, could Munsey be subliminally washing away his guilt?

Or, could it just mean that when he washes his hands, he is marking the end of that little dirty bit of business?

 

A drainpipe is an avenue by which unwanted material is diposed of. Prisoners in a drainpipe suggests they are considered nothing more than the rubbish that empties into it. I see a correlation here. Munsey's guilt and the remains of his reprehensible deed are also washed down the drainpipe.

 

While I appreciate everything that went into the making of this movie, I am, typically, not a fan of prison movies. While Brute Force promises to be an "on the edge of your seat" film, I think I will take a pass.

 

However, I will look forward to everyone's comments.

Very deep comments.  Especially the drainpipe analogy.  I think that maybe there's a third reason he might be washing his hands: to destroy evidence, separating himself from his crime of prisoner abuse.  Even though he knows no one will accuse him (consider the "paralyzed" guards in an adjoining room, appalled at what's going on, and yet, even though they have him outnumbered, do nothing to stop it), better be safe than sorry.  

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Existentialism in film - Hell is...... As Sartre wrote "Hell is other people" and going by this clip if you are Sam Levene's character you would have to agree. The hopelessness of the scene Sam is tied down and knows a beating is coming unless he gives up information. The tention builds as the Wagner is turned up and the rubber pipe is brought into view, we then cut to the other room and can hear the beating begin as the other officers become uncomfortable (as they should) we then are brought back to a bloody Sam. We then get the hopelessness of the Hume Cronyn chacter as he does his thing to stop a breakout of what is perceived to be a dangerous criminal. Hume gives it all he's got and is not better off for it.  Overall the scene has no up side and is just utter dispair. Hell is....

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Wk 9 Brute Force

 

-- What role does music (especially the record playing Wagner) play in the intensity of this scene?  As has been the case with other noir films, classical music, and jazz, have been used to heighten the violence or cover it up, as when someone is getting a beating.  There was another film in this series whose title escapes me where the antagonist used classical music to get him in the mood to be violent.  In Brute Force, it’s mostly used to cover up any noise Sam Levene or the rubber hose with which Hume Cronyn beat him might make. He turns it up after he goes to get the hose.  Also, this German aggressive music, combined with his imposing portrait on the walI, suggest that he is the "Fuhrer" of this microcosm. I particularly liked the reflection of the record in the top of the victrola.  It looked golden, and large and imposing, like the music.  This was a 12-inch record, one that played 4-5 minutes, not a 10-inch, which played no more than 3.  Warden needed as much time as possible to beat someone before he had to stop to change the record.  Columbia didn’t initiate the “LP” until 1948.

 Sidebar:  Sam Levene, who is featured in so many of the noirs of this series, played Nathan Detroit in the original Broadway production of “Guys and Dolls.” (Frank Sinatra’s role in the movie), and Robert Alda (Alan Alda’s father) who was in “Nora Prentiss” as the good-natured club owner, played Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando’s part in the movie.)

-- 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?  Definitely the Existential feeling of Nausea, dread, fear, and all those other negative adjectives are in full “force” here.  Globally, on the surface, things are good: the war’s over, blah blah blah, but underneath it’s all decayed and falling apart.  The man who’s supposed to keep order (the warden) is creating chaos.  The Communist threat, crazy Joe McCarthy, the Korean War, all these things heightened the paranoia, and these films put a visual to it.  The fact that he brought down the window shades and sent the guard to a different room signifies that this “threat” is secret, and there’s no way you can fight it without witnesses, so you’re endlessly doomed, and the music plays on, signifying that nothing’s really wrong on the surface.  

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

The music is being used to cover and imply the brute force.

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?

Definitely more bleak and shows that even the "good" are not above using violence to get what they want. 

 

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Yikes! That is brutal indeed. Wagner is usually connected to the Nazi regime, which is probably the undertone of this interrogation scene. Having in mind that the film was made in 1947, the "Holocaust connection" becomes even more apparent. However, I want to move away from this obvious analogy and make an observation regarding the stark contrast between the classical music, which is something elevated, refined, cultural; and the aggression, physical force and sociopathic brutality. This situation, where "little man" gains some power, which opens the door for him to express his frustration (and generally feel better about himself) is a well-known story... Looking forward to watching this film.

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I really enjoyed the composition of the scene and the high and constant tense contrast between Captain in his position of power and prisoner in his position of submission. It's a really interesting scene, too, because typically in noir, the shady characters are the criminals. They're the ones ruling the underworld and comitting all kinds of atrocities for their benefit. Of course, we don't know enough from this clip to know if perhaps the Captain is bending the law for the greater good, but I don't think that'll be the case after seeing the response of fellow officers from outside of the room as they hear the beating happening. In fact, I think that re-establishes the previous imbalance, in which those who are supposed to be the good guys had yet to be good in the film. But, we don't know yet if those cops/officers on the outside will be able to do anything. If I've learned anything in noir, is that good results for good people are not free. It's possible that the choice to show those who are about being moral and ethical are in an outside room because, despite their good intentions, they'll be unable to affect a change. They're the real good guys, but their efforts might be in vain.

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