Brute Force (1947)

3 05 2009

Based on the three films of his I’ve seen, I think I have developed something of a “crush” for Jules Dassin. None of his films, this one included, can be considered masterpieces, at least not by my standards. They aren’t exactly “great” films, either, but all of his films are very entertaining and all of them look absolutely amazing. Perhaps the latter element is what makes me see his work as something more than just “escapist” entertainment, but I truly believe there is something personal going on in his films, even if he was working under the extremely general standards of 1940s Hollywood.

Like De Toth’s Crime Wave, I can’t help but describe the tone as cold and brutal. Both are pretty much stock phrases for describing noir so I suppose it is also interesting to point out that Dassin’s visuals are driven by gritty, sensory detailed close-ups. The dirt of every man’s face is palpable. The exception to this description is the guards of the prison, specifically Hume Cronyn’s Captain Munsey. He and his guards are (wisely) photographed with some distance, as though the prisoners and the viewers are being observed through a plate-glass window. Oddly enough, Munsey is the type of man willing to open this window, if only to spit in the faces of the inmates.

Perhaps this is where Dassin’s storytelling techniques begin to lose me. I like how he can vividly develop an atmosphere, and how he makes those that inhabit it very interesting. In this particular case, however, the film’s power is somewhat tainted by the simple characterization of Munsey as a villain. He plays by the same rule book, so to speak, as all of the prisoners, but it does seem pretty clear that we shouldn’t like him. This isn’t something new to genre cinema, but in my favorite westerns and even a few noirs, the “bad guy” is always handled gracefully. Dassin’s villain isn’t exactly over the top, but he certainly isn’t subtle, either. It’s little things like this that prevent me from loving Dassin outright, and turn his very good films into fairly decent ones.