Saturday, May 2, 2015
First, I should make a complete disclosure. Although I am not a big fan of labels, I could accurately be called, at least in many ways, a liberal. As such, I don’t cotton to the idea that we are completely in control of our destinies. I believe that accidents of both birth and circumstance contribute greatly to what we become. No man, for good or ill, is completely self-made. This kind of thinking gets in the craw of those conservative types who like to imagine that they are where they are because they worked hard and put their money on the right God and that luck had nothing to do with it. They would have you believe the guy who owns the coal mine earned his way there, when we all really know that the laziest worker in the mine works harder than the owner, and is morally superior to him to boot. In a backward kind of way, you can almost forgive the owner, as he never had the opportunity to do anything but cheat and steal and earn his living from other people’s sweat.
That being said, I don’t believe that we have the right to lay everything we do at the doorsteps of that luck and those circumstances. We need to be as responsible for ourselves as we can be, even if fate is not playing the game of life with us using a full deck. So movies and books that attempt to completely absolve people due to their environments (I’m depraved because I was deprived) stick in my craw too. Convicts are products of their environments but also of their own choices, so prison movies that portray murderers and rapists as mere products of a broken system are missing part of the point.
BRUTE FORCE (1947) is one of those movies. In it, the prisoners sharing one of the cells in Westgate Prison (led by Burt Lancaster as Joe Collins) are just hard luck guys, beaten by Lady Luck, by poverty, and by the love they have for one lady or another. Collins himself only crossed the line to make a little scratch to try and save his girl from life in a wheelchair. Spencer (John Hoyt) is the most honestly dishonest of the bunch, a purveyor of phony stocks, who has a fond memory of Flossy (Yvonne DeCarlo), who fleeced him of his gambling winnings at the point of his own gun.
The story of Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) is the most saccharine and sentimental in this melodramatic flick. Trying to make it on the straight and narrow as some kind of bookkeeper, he can’t keep his beautiful wife (Ella Raines) in furs, and so embezzles to get her one, in fear that she will leave him if he does not. Finally, there is a GI who took the murder rap for his Italian girlfriend when stationed there during the war. I wonder what a feminist interpretation of this movie would consist of, seeing as all these man have women to at least partly blame for their penal predicaments, none of them bad guys really, no rapists or psychopathic murderers certainly, the only truly bad guy being evil guard Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) who takes prisoners into his office and turns up the old Victrola while he beats information about the other prisoners out of them. Munsey doesn’t have a woman to blame for his psychopathy, and seems to not really care for human contact at all, at least not real contact, preferring to make his connection to the rest of mankind with the end of his truncheon.
Throw in a drunken prison surgeon who is a kind of soused truth teller, who gets bombed and lets the feckless warden and the sinister Munsey know what is what, an uncaring populace and mean spirited bureaucrats, and you have a recipe for something, but not for a great movie. You know there will be a break, and you know that Munsey and Collins will have to settle up with each other for good before the movie is over, but it all seemed such a foregone conclusion that I was not particularly moved. I wasn’t even surprised when one of the gang rats out the other’s plan to break out ( through the dreaded drain pipe).
It seemed so formulaic, but then it made me wonder if it followed the formula or created it: you know, the one where the warden and/or the guards are the real criminals, even though the poor misguided prisoners may have done some not so nice things themselves (Collins orders a guy who squealed on him to be killed, but he kind of deserved it, if anybody deserves being crushed to death in heavy machinery). I loved BRUBAKER, SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, COOL HAND LUKE, and these all came out after BRUTE FORCE. Of course, COOL HAND LUKE was so much better, Strother Martin so much more menacing than Cronyn, who mouths his lines with a kind of restrained and even urbane viciousness that just doesn’t convince. He is more convincing as a Machiavellian than as a brute, but they try to make him both. As he beats on one of his charges to try and figure out the last piece to the puzzle he is constructing about the break, I almost wanted to laugh. Hume Cronyn! He couldn’t beat a confession out of my grandmother. He shouldn’t have been portrayed as the type who would have even bothered to use his hands on those he tormented. Martin never did, and yet when he warned Paul Newman his next escape attempt would be is last, I believed him. Oh, yes I did. Think about it. Machiavellian works, it really does: Nurse Ratched never laid hands on McMurphy, and at the end of the LONGEST YARD, Eddie Albert only takes up the rifle and aims at Burt Reynolds after his guard has ignored is order to shoot.
Melodramatic, this movie was. And not noir. Noir is not hopeful. This movie is, in a way. It holds out the hope that if we provided men with the chance of rehabilitation they would come out of prison better men than when they went in. It not only is the unspoken message of the movie, the feckless warden actually gives a speech about it. The movie (and the speech) indicts an uncaring society that allows men who go to jail as minor criminals emerge as major ones. But would there not be men like Cronyn still, whatever side of the bars they were on? Yes, I believe there is something wrong with a system that imprisons so many young black men, and there is something wrong when we imprison a higher percentage of our citizens than any other Western Democracy. But if you are going to do a propaganda movie, don’t make it so obviously propagandist. Give us characters of real complexity on both sides of the line, and have some of those characters straddle it.
The movie could have also been entertaining as a clash between two men of fierce will and intelligence, but it didn’t work as that either. This was no stand-off such as that between David Niven and the Japanese prison warden in the BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI, and Lancaster is no Cool Hand Luke, no “Mac” McMurphy, no Papillon. He doesn’t dominate the film, failing to fill the vacuum left by Cronyn’s inability to do so. He mostly glares, and spouts tough guy dialogue, and then shows us his hidden heart of gold when he flashes back on his helpless and hapless girlfriend, the one he must break out to go and see. She could have saved him from himself, you see, the problem with Collins being that, I guess, his mother didn’t love him enough, and he had to eat the government lunch at school. Boring, old hat, de rigueur—Blah. And the final physical confrontation between Collins and Munsey is comical. Lancaster is an imposing physical specimen, with a kind of alpha male’s confidence in his animal self, but he needs a worthy adversary to show us just how hard a guy he is. Cronyn doesn’t cut it as such (I couldn’t help but imagine him in COCOON playing someone’s Grandpa. Didn’t he make some kind of commercial for adult diapers or suppositories or hemorrhoid cream or something?)
It’s not that I don’t think prisons need to be indicted. I read up a little on this, and apparently it came shortly after a deadly riot in Alcatraz. If the movie was supposed to clean up the system, it failed. Over twenty years later, we had Attica. And as noir, the movie misses too. Noir doesn’t offer hope. This movie does, but does so in such a melodramatic, unimaginative way, that one is not particularly moved. Those who would tend to agree with it needn’t be convinced (and although these liberals, like myself, do think reform is needed, it hasn’t come about) , and those who don’t can easily disregard this clumsy little morality play filled with cardboard heroes and villains.
© 2015 Mike Welch