Brute Force [1947]

Jules Dassin's brooding, brutal drama about a prison wound to the breaking point by a sadistic captain of the guards is a classic film noir as well as one of the greatest prison films ever made. Burt Lancaster (in only his third film but already commanding the screen like a pro) is the savvy prison veteran whose clashes with Hume Cronyn (the ambitious guard with a god complex) land him first in solitary then in the claustrophobic drain pipe, a muddy, airless work detail that slowly kills every man assigned to it. With the help of his cellmate buddies and former gangland boss Charles Bickford he hatches a plan to break out, but Cronyn has his own plans for the unbreakable prisoner. Dassin's oppressive prison is thick with atmosphere: cavernous buildings and halls that echo with the footsteps of inmates and the clanking of bars, overcrowded cells that seem to close in on the men, a busy machine shop where the film's most memorable scene takes place--the ruthless assassination of a stoolie in a pounding metal press. Cinematographer William Daniels, a master of Hollywood's soft-focus glamour, creates a harsh, hard-edged look for the film, softened only by looming shadows. A sense of doom hovers over everything, culminating in an explosive finale, but the barbaric, brutish violence hangs in the air long after the film is over. --Sean Axmaker

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