Dr. Rich Edwards

July 31 Film Discussion for #NoirSummer for all 13 Films

157 posts in this topic

Brute Force

 

What struck me about Brute Force is that little about the film dates it. It’s a story that could be told today and be completely believable.

 

One detail that puts it in the 1940s is the reference to World War II. The prisoners use an incident from the fighting in Italy as a code for their breakout. The number 633 is a hill in Italy that the Germans couldn’t cover on both sides. Americans won the battle when they used this piece of information to their advantage and took the hill. This becomes a metaphor for the prison breakout: The prisoners will take the tower from the inside and from the outside (from the drainpipe), and they believe they will succeed because there is only one machine gun on the tower. The guards won’t be able to cover the prison gate from both the inside and the outside with only one machine gun. (Courtesy of NPR: Today, August 14, 2015, is the seventieth anniversary of the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II.)

 

Another detail that dates the film is Gallagher’s reference to the linotype machine in the prison newspaper office. Linotype has been replaced by computers, and I doubt that one could find a working linotype machine today.

 

Doctor Walters tells Munsey that he is happy only when he can inflict pain. [[The doctor tells Munsey that he is the psychopath, not any of the prisoners. He also tells Munsey that he has no cleverness, no imagination, just brute force.]] Toward the beginning of the movie, Doctor Walters calls the prison “one big human bomb.” He is the voice of a conscience, and he doesn’t approve of more “discipline” for the prisoners. He opposes Captain Munsey, but he doesn’t seem to have any real power. In the end, however, it’s Captain Munsey who loses all his power and his life. The doctor is proven right: Munsey lives by violence (psychological, emotional, and physical) and dies by violence.

 

Munsey’s violence also doesn’t produce results: He beats Louie Miller, but Miller doesn’t give up anything he knows about the planned breakout. Munsey says that Miller would have told him anything he knew, if he knew anything at all, after the beating. Munsey is so sure that his violent approach is the right one that he doesn’t even see its shortcomings.

 

The prisoners are not innocent, and not just because of the crimes they have committed on the outside. Almost all of them are responsible, directly or indirectly, for the murder of Wilson in the workshop. But many of them are also victims of Munsey’s psychological and physical violence.

 

I’m not sure that any of this gives Brute Force an existential theme. The big takeaway for me is that living by violence is no way to live.

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Brute Force

 

What struck me about Brute Force is that little about the film dates it. It’s a story that could be told today and be completely believable.

 

One detail that puts it in the 1940s is the reference to World War II. The prisoners use an incident from the fighting in Italy as a code for their breakout. The number 633 is a hill in Italy that the Germans couldn’t cover on both sides. Americans won the battle when they used this piece of information to their advantage and took the hill. This becomes a metaphor for the prison breakout: The prisoners will take the tower from the inside and from the outside (from the drainpipe), and they believe they will succeed because there is only one machine gun on the tower. The guards won’t be able to cover the prison gate from both the inside and the outside with only one machine gun. (Courtesy of NPR: Today, August 14, 2015, is the seventieth anniversary of the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II.)

 

Another detail that dates the film is Gallagher’s reference to the linotype machine in the prison newspaper office. Linotype has been replaced by computers, and I doubt that one could find a working linotype machine today.

 

Doctor Walters tells Munsey that he is happy only when he can inflict pain. Munsey is the psychopath, not any of the prisoners. He has no cleverness, no imagination, just brute force. Toward the beginning of the movie, Doctor Walters calls the prison “one big human bomb.” He is the voice of a conscience, and he doesn’t approve of more “discipline” for the prisoners. He opposes Captain Munsey, but he doesn’t seem to have any real power. In the end, however, it’s Captain Munsey who loses all his power and his life. The doctor is proven right: Munsey lives by violence (psychological, emotional, and physical) and dies by violence.

 

Munsey’s violence also doesn’t produce results: He beats Louie Miller, but Miller doesn’t give up anything he knows about the planned breakout. Munsey says that Miller would have told him anything he knew, if he knew anything at all, after the beating. Munsey is so sure that his violent approach is the right one that he doesn’t even see its shortcomings.

 

The prisoners are not innocent, and not just because of the crimes they have committed on the outside. Almost all of them are responsible, directly or indirectly, for the murder of Wilson in the workshop. But many of them are also victims of Munsey’s psychological and physical violence.

 

I’m not sure that any of this gives Brute Force an existential theme. The big takeaway for me is that living by violence is no way to live.

 

I like your summary here, but would disagree about one thing.

 

You say the only psychopath is Munsey, I would argue that - to some extent - Burt Lancaster's character, Joe Collins actions show him to be equally psychotic. He's in some way like a mirror image to Munsey and they hate each other with such passion because they recognize (and hate) the same traits in the other that is also inside them. Collins' violence isn't expressed as overtly, but think about it: the prisoners seem as awed by Collins as they are cowed by Munsey - prisons run on simple fear and the survival of the fittest and Collins is top-dog on the inside - Collins has as much power over the prisoners as Munsey, possibly more if you look at the elaborate plan they carry out on his behalf to kill the first stool pigeon (no mere shiv in the shower here!), and look at the heartless and callous manner he uses the second stool pigeon as a human shield in face of the machine gun.

 

In fact, he knows exactly what he's doing in his manically driven scheme to get his hands on Munsey - I wonder if he really does want to escape - and must know that he's sending many of his fellows to the grave to ensure he's successful. 

 

None of which means, of course, that Munsey wasn't a fascist monster, but I think the film was more nuanced than simple good vs bad; not everything is black and white and here particularly it seemed more grey vs greyer. 

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Brute Force

 

What struck me about Brute Force is that little about the film dates it. It’s a story that could be told today and be completely believable.

 

One detail that puts it in the 1940s is the reference to World War II. The prisoners use an incident from the fighting in Italy as a code for their breakout. The number 633 is a hill in Italy that the Germans couldn’t cover on both sides. Americans won the battle when they used this piece of information to their advantage and took the hill. This becomes a metaphor for the prison breakout: The prisoners will take the tower from the inside and from the outside (from the drainpipe), and they believe they will succeed because there is only one machine gun on the tower. The guards won’t be able to cover the prison gate from both the inside and the outside with only one machine gun. (Courtesy of NPR: Today, August 14, 2015, is the seventieth anniversary of the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II.)

 

Another detail that dates the film is Gallagher’s reference to the linotype machine in the prison newspaper office. Linotype has been replaced by computers, and I doubt that one could find a working linotype machine today.

 

Doctor Walters tells Munsey that he is happy only when he can inflict pain. Munsey is the psychopath, not any of the prisoners. He has no cleverness, no imagination, just brute force. Toward the beginning of the movie, Doctor Walters calls the prison “one big human bomb.” He is the voice of a conscience, and he doesn’t approve of more “discipline” for the prisoners. He opposes Captain Munsey, but he doesn’t seem to have any real power. In the end, however, it’s Captain Munsey who loses all his power and his life. The doctor is proven right: Munsey lives by violence (psychological, emotional, and physical) and dies by violence.

 

Munsey’s violence also doesn’t produce results: He beats Louie Miller, but Miller doesn’t give up anything he knows about the planned breakout. Munsey says that Miller would have told him anything he knew, if he knew anything at all, after the beating. Munsey is so sure that his violent approach is the right one that he doesn’t even see its shortcomings.

 

The prisoners are not innocent, and not just because of the crimes they have committed on the outside. Almost all of them are responsible, directly or indirectly, for the murder of Wilson in the workshop. But many of them are also victims of Munsey’s psychological and physical violence.

 

I’m not sure that any of this gives Brute Force an existential theme. The big takeaway for me is that living by violence is no way to live.

 

 

Agree that Brute Force could be a story told today, and perhaps has been.   The Last Castle, with Robert Redford as a court-martialed general, leading a military prison revolt against the corrupt and brutal warden, played by James Gandolfini, has many of the same themes and elements.    

 

While the visceral impact of Brute Force hasn't changed or diminished over time, the prison-system in this country has, and not for the better.   It's largely been privatized and is now run for profit, not correction.   Unlike in the Forties or Fifties, many of the inmates today are there because they've been plea-bargained into a cell by mandatory sentences or are pawns in our highly misguided 'war on drugs' rather than because they're hardened criminals deserving lengthy incarceration.  

 

What remains the same, however, is that many of these  'correctional' institutions breed hardened criminals and violence more than they teach regret and rehabilitation.   Their success rate of rehabilitation is no better than Munsey's, and they teach the same twisted lesson that violence and brutality are necessary for survival.  

I would venture to think that one of the reasons/motives Hellinger and Dassin made Brute Force, supposedly inspired by an actual inmate revolt in Alcatraz in 1946, was to hopefully effect some change to the brutal, self-perpetuating prison system depicted in it.   I'm sure some of the scenes were deliberately intended to shock in the hope of prodding such change.  

 

Looking back, they didn't shock nearly enough, because little has changed.  That sobering reality probably colors the effect a film like Brute Force has on us today every bit as much as the memories of WWII and Existential angst did on audiences in the late Forties.   

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I like your summary here, but would disagree about one thing.

 

You say the only psychopath is Munsey, I would argue that - to some extent - Burt Lancaster's character, Joe Collins actions show him to be equally psychotic. He's in some way like a mirror image to Munsey and they hate each other with such passion because they recognize (and hate) the same traits in the other that is also inside them. Collins' violence isn't expressed as overtly, but think about it: the prisoners seem as awed by Collins as they are cowed by Munsey - prisons run on simple fear and the survival of the fittest and Collins is top-dog on the inside - Collins has as much power over the prisoners as Munsey, possibly more if you look at the elaborate plan they carry out on his behalf to kill the first stool pigeon (no mere shiv in the shower here!), and look at the heartless and callous manner he uses the second stool pigeon as a human shield in face of the machine gun.

 

In fact, he knows exactly what he's doing in his manically driven scheme to get his hands on Munsey - I wonder if he really does want to escape - and must know that he's sending many of his fellows to the grave to ensure he's successful. 

 

None of which means, of course, that Munsey wasn't a fascist monster, but I think the film was more nuanced than simple good vs bad; not everything is black and white and here particularly it seemed more grey vs greyer. 

 

I wasn't trying to make the point that Brute Force is black versus white, not by a long shot. In fact I said, "The prisoners are not innocent, and not just because of the crimes they have committed on the outside. Almost all of them are responsible, directly or indirectly, for the murder of Wilson in the workshop. But many of them are also victims of Munsey’s psychological and physical violence." Even the flashbacks don't portray any of the prisoners as innocent. It's definitely a film noir world, and there's very little, if anything, to alleviate the overall sense of doom and foreboding.

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I like your summary here, but would disagree about one thing.

 

You say the only psychopath is Munsey, I would argue that - to some extent - Burt Lancaster's character, Joe Collins actions show him to be equally psychotic. He's in some way like a mirror image to Munsey and they hate each other with such passion because they recognize (and hate) the same traits in the other that is also inside them. Collins' violence isn't expressed as overtly, but think about it: the prisoners seem as awed by Collins as they are cowed by Munsey - prisons run on simple fear and the survival of the fittest and Collins is top-dog on the inside - Collins has as much power over the prisoners as Munsey, possibly more if you look at the elaborate plan they carry out on his behalf to kill the first stool pigeon (no mere shiv in the shower here!), and look at the heartless and callous manner he uses the second stool pigeon as a human shield in face of the machine gun.

 

In fact, he knows exactly what he's doing in his manically driven scheme to get his hands on Munsey - I wonder if he really does want to escape - and must know that he's sending many of his fellows to the grave to ensure he's successful. 

 

None of which means, of course, that Munsey wasn't a fascist monster, but I think the film was more nuanced than simple good vs bad; not everything is black and white and here particularly it seemed more grey vs greyer. 

 

I edited my post to see if I can make it clearer. I think you misunderstood some of the lines as being my own opinions when, in fact, I was referring to a scene between Doctor Walters and Captain Munsey, in which the opposing philosophies of both characters are discussed. It's the same scene in which Munsey strikes Walters.

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Probably like many of you, or like a good gumshoe hot on a case, I've been scouring TCM's Summer Under the Stars schedule for full-fledged and borderline noirs.   Caught three over the few days that I hadn't seen before. 

 

Undercurrent.   Definite noir 'undercurrent's with  Kate Hepburn as a self-deprecating women who marries nice-guy Robert Taylor only to find he's got demons in his closet, with Bob Mitchum as a mysterious brother who's believed dead or missing well into the story.   A bit melodramatic in parts, and perhaps overly influenced by Hitch's Rebecca, but it's not a bad film by Vincente Minnelli.

 

Flamingo Road, by Michael Curtiz, and The Damned Don't Cry by Vincent Sherman.   Both star Joan Crawford in similar roles, a women tired of settling for less and determined to get the ephemeral 'more'.

 

In Flamingo Road Joan starts off as a carnival dancer who tries to settle down in a small town and make a way for herself.   En route, she's befriended by weak-willed Deputy Sheriff Zachary Scott and antagonized and persecuted by his boss, local kingpin wonderfully played by Sidney Greenstreet in a performance as corrupt and physically reflective of his character as Orson Welles was as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.  The film is bereft of sympathetic characters other than Crawford, but the oppressive air of corruption that entraps everyone in the film, as well as the nice camera work and lighting, combine to make this film a very nice noir. 

 

The Damned Don't Cry showcases Crawford in a similar role, with echoes of Mildred Pierce; a married woman from an unsympathetic home is caught in an unhappy and too-frugal marriage (to a young Richard Egan), and she leaves him after the tragic death of their son.   She begins to make her own way in the world, learning the ropes, using her charms and her wiles to climb the ladder of success by becoming ever-more deeply embroiled in the mob.   A good supporting cast, that includes Steve Cochran, David Brian and Kent Smith...as the stepping-stone men in her life...make it an entertaining, if somewhat obvious, film.  

 

All three of these films have some noir credentials --- characters, storyline, lighting, camerawork, the devices used to tell the story.    

 

One thing that becomes very noticeable after a while, which this both the Summer of Darkness and Investigating Noir course have opened my eyes to is the amazing extent to which other styles and genres adopted and appropriated the core elements, tropes and motifs of noir for their own purposes.  

 

When you think about it, this may be one of the contributing reasons behind the ultimate demise of noir in the Mid-Late Fifties; noir was no longer something distinct and discernible unto itself (providing it ever was), but rather had morphed into and been absorbed into myriad genres telling highly disparate stories.  

 

In a sense, noir seems to have become less the way particular stories were told and characters revealed and more the way most stories were told and most characters revealed and depicted ...and that might be the biggest noir 'heist' of all!.  

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I also shed a few tears when I saw the father/son interaction. The Wrong Man reminds me so much of this Italian post-war, neo-realist film Ladri di Biciclette. Though the plots differ, it still has the same sad mood throughout the film. The focus is on the working class community. There is also the subject of injustice, desperation, and the bond between father and son. Each father is in search of something; Manny searching for evidence of his innocence and Antonio looking for his stolen bicycle which he needed to earn his living. 

 

I finally saw Bicycle Thieves. The Criterion DVD used Bicycle Thieves in its English translation, so I don't know why the movie title is sometimes repeated in singular form in English. But the interaction between the father and son seemed to be the one of the most important elements of the film. I must admit that it didn't seem quite the same as that between Manny and his son in The Wrong Man, but that's partly because of two scenes. One is where Bruno Ricci is following his father on the streets of Rome, and his father is so despondent that he doesn't notice that his son almost gets hit by a car, not once but twice. And the second is the one where Antonio doesn't notice that his son Bruno falls on his face on the cobblestones, in the rain, after running to keep up with him. Ouch! But what a powerful movie. The boy playing Bruno gave such a great performance. It was wonderful.

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