This one I thought I would never see again. It came out in 1947, when I was six years old. I saw it at the Palace Theater on the town square, so I figure it must have come there after touring the rest of the country, because I’m certain my parents would never have let me see it at that age. Then, maybe they would. It’s Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster, and it’s about inmates in a state prison. This was distributed by Universal Pictures. I watched it on Hulu, and I’m getting details from Wikipedia.
Here’s the deal. This is your old time state prison, brutal and unredemptive. The aim is to make the prisoners regret they ever did the crime. The first thing I notice watching this is the prison is sorely overcrowded. There are six prisoners in cell R17, a new one having replaced one who just died from working on a prison tunnel project.
I’m not going to recap the plot, but I will show a couple of images that I have retained after nearly 70 years. The first is a prisoner selected for extermination because he’s been too cozy with the officials. In a workshop where they’re making license plates, some prisoners create a distraction, and some others use blow torches to force the victim back until he falls in the stamping mill to be crushed as flat as a license plate.
Here is the second, during the concluding scenes. Prisoner Joe Collins (Lancaster) has engineered a prison break. Action starts inside the tunnel project, and the prisoners figure out one of them has ratted out the plan. They strap him to the mine car and push it out of the tunnel ahead of them, where guards, alerted and waiting with a tripod-mounted machine gun, finish him off. Yes, this image stuck with me ever since.
The kernel of all this prisoner unrest is guard captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). He deliberately torments a prisoner, feeding him the fiction that his wife has filed for divorce. The prisoner hangs himself. Munsey learns of the escape plan from the traitorous prisoner, and sets up the escapees to be executed when they make their move.
Collins, mortally wounded, reaches Munsey in the guard tower and tosses him to the mob of angry prisoners below.
This could have been a great vehicle for human drama, but it was turned into a preachy story about prison conditions. And there are some points that don’t make sense. For example, one prisoner is shown in a flashback getting nabbed by the MPs for killing a civilian in occupied Italy. How come he’s not in a federal prison?
Another flashback shows Collins on the run from the law. He has met this woman who has cancer, and he stays loyal to her, planning to break out to be with her and to urge her to get life-saving surgery. Actually, cancer doesn’t work that way. If the woman was putting off having the surgery until Collins could be with her, how come she didn’t have the surgery before he went to the slam?
Yes, a lot of this doesn’t make sense. Ever since I saw the movie I thought about it whenever the word “gritty” came up. The mind works that way.