top of page
Search

154. BRUTE FORCE, 1947

An explosive film noir that is one of filmdom’s best prison dramas

Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

Powerful. Uncompromising. Gripping. Human. These are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of the film “Brute Force”. This explosive prison drama uses the penal system as a penetrating allegory for power and society, and does so through an unforgettably high-powered and often unsettling film noir lens. Teeming with thrilling drama, irresistible visual pizazz, shocking brutality, and an action-packed climax that stands as one of the most fiercely memorable in all of cinema, this is an unforgettable must-see film.


Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Whit Bissell,  Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

As if the heavens were weeping, “Brute Force” opens as the rain pours over Westgate Penitentiary. It’s 6 pm, time for roll call, and as their names are called, we are introduced to five of the six prisoners in Cell R17 – “Spencer”, “Becker” (aka “Soldier”), “Stack”, “Lister”, and “Kid Coy”. Missing is “Joe Collins”, who soon arrives from ten days in solitary confinement for carrying a knife that he said was planted on him. By this early point in the film, we’ve also met the kind and meek, tell-it-like-it-is “Dr. Walters”, and the hard and humorless “Captain Munsey”.


Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

As more is revealed, we realize that the power-hungry “Munsey” wants to become warden, the frustrated doctor drowns his concerns and despair in alcohol, and “Joe” desperately wants to escape this living hell. In order to escape, "Joe" needs the help of his cellmates and his respected friend and fellow inmate "Gallagher", who runs Westgate's newsletter. Though “Joe” is the main catalyst for the story, it's really an ensemble piece with each player adding their own distinct gravitas to a much broader look at power, oppression, obsession, the prison system, authoritarianism, and society – a truly exciting bundle of potent entertainment.


James O'Rear attacked by fire Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

“Brute Force” contains what was considered extreme violence for 1947, and is often cited as being one of the most violent films of the 1940s. Film noir historian and Turner Classic Movie Channel host Eddie Muller called it “the most violent studio movie ever made in Hollywood”. Compared to today, the film is pretty tame and we don’t actually see most of the violence – it’s implied. Even so, it’s displayed so masterfully, it still shocks.


Prison guards in the tower over the yard of prisoners Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

“Brute Force” was born because of its producer, Mark Hellinger. A former newspaperman, nationally-known Broadway columnist, playwright, and writer of realistic short stories, Hellinger drifted to producing motion pictures at Warner Brothers in 1939. Wanting to be his own boss and make more mature and realistic films, he left Warners and set up his own production unit with a financing and distribution deal at Universal-International Pictures. His first film there was the 1946 film noir, “The Killers”, whose surprise success turned Hellinger into a Hollywood heavyweight.


Westgate penitentiary Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

Hellinger offered former reporter and ex-con Robert Patterson a job writing film stories, and with Hellinger’s input, Patterson (who had served time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for check fraud) took inspiration from his own experiences and quickly came up with a story titled “Eight Men”, about how eight different men ended up in the same prison cell. Hellinger then hired screenwriter Richard Brooks, who loved writing about social themes, to adapt Patterson’s story into a screenplay – which turned into “Brute Force”. After making the drama "Swell Guy”, “Brute Force”, was Hellinger’s next film.


Warden Roman Bohnan and prisoner Charles Bickford Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

Hellinger hired Jules Dassin to direct, which was a fantastic choice, for Dassin mesmerizingly captures a feeling of realism through very stylized direction. With a straightforward and direct approach to storytelling, Dassin combines lots of extended takes and camera moves with unrealistically cinematic framing and staging, frequently showing characters blatantly out of focus, partially cut out of frame, or speaking to each other while all facing the camera. But it’s done with such skilled care and precise emotional payoff that it flows dramatically and comes off as natural.


Visiting Day at Westgate Penitentiary Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

One thing that separates this film from so many others is how Dassin humanizes all its characters. An example is when “Joe” talks with his lawyer on visiting day. Dassin opens that scene as the camera eavesdrops over other prisoners' conversations, reminding us that these inmates are people with girlfriends, parents, wives, and daughters. Also in the film, he frames and lights prisoners as equals, and as a result, we root for all of them as a group and not just one or two individuals. We are shown backstories for several of the men in Cell R17 and are given references to the history of other characters as well, establishing that they each have lives of their own. Dassin also has a gift for building tension and suspense, particularly seen in the finale (which I'll let you witness when you watch it). All in all, Dassin’s direction is extraordinary.


Burt Lancaster wants to escape Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

portrait photo of Hollywood European film director young Jules Dassin on a movie set
Jules Dassiin

Connecticut-born Jules Dassin grew up in New York, acted and played the piano at a young age, and began professionally acting when he was fourteen with New York's Yiddish Art Theatre. After a couple years studying acting throughout Europe, he returned to the US stage and soon began directing for radio and theater. In 1940, he was summoned to Hollywood as a director by RKO Radio Pictures to observe Garson Kanin direct "They Knew What They Wanted" and Alfred Hitchcock direct "Mr. and Mrs. Smith". Six months later RKO let him go and he was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to direct the 1941 short film "The Tell-Tale Heart". Its success led to a long-term MGM contract in which he began directing B movies with 1942's "Nazi Agent". Ashamed of some of the films he was assigned to direct and loathing studio head Louis B. Mayer, Dassin tried to get out of his contract to no avail, and went on a thirteen month hiatus to Europe. In his tenure at MGM, he directed seven films (including "A Letter for Evie” and "Reunion in France”) before his contract ended in 1946. Now free, he thought of returning to the New York stage. That’s when Hellinger called.


Jack Overman, Jeff Corey, and Burt Lancaster in prison cell R17 Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

Dassin signed a non-exclusive three-picture deal with Hellinger beginning with "Brute Force" (which was a hit) and followed it with another classic noir, 1948's ”The Naked City", one of the top grossing films of the year. Sadly, Hellinger suddenly died before "The Naked City" was released, so a third collaboration never happened. Dassin directed on Broadway before signing with 20th Century-Fox and directing 1949's "Thieves' Highway". Around this time McCarthyism was rearing its ugly head in Hollywood (see my post on "High Noon" for an explanation on that and HUAC), and Dassin's name kept surfacing (Dassin had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, when it was common for Americans to do so).


Jeff Corey, Jack Overman, and shirtless John Hoyt in prison cell R17 Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck gave Dassin the script for the film "Night and the City", and immediately sent him to England to direct it before he became blacklisted. In 1949, during production, Dassin was unofficially blacklisted and not allowed to step back on the studio lot, edit the film, or supervise its musical scoring. Despite this, “Night and the City” became yet another classic noir. In 1951, fellow film director Edward Dmytryk decided to furnish HUAC with names of other former or supposed communists to end his own blacklist, and named Dassin. Dassin was now officially blacklisted.


Hume Cronyn and Art Smith argue Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

Not able to work in Hollywood, Dassin received offers to direct two European films, but Hollywood threatened the producers that if they worked with Dassin, none of their films would ever be shown in Hollywood. That ended that. Finally, in 1955, a French producer insisted Dassin direct the 1955 French noir, "Rififi" (another of my favorites), which he did, and earned a Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival. At the festival, he met Greek actress Melina Mercouri and it was love at first sight. They eventually married in 1966. Dassin spent the rest of his career making films in Europe, returning to Hollywood once to direct the 1968 landmark Black film "Uptight".


Charles Bickford and Burt Lancaster plan their escape in church Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

Dassin directed Mercouri in nine films, including the 1960 international hit "Never on Sunday", which earned five Academy Award nominations including two for Dassin (Best Director and Best Screenplay). He also starred in that film opposite Mercouri because he couldn't afford to hire a known actor. Dassin directed two dozen films in his career, others of which include "The Law”, “Topkapi”, and "The Canterville Ghost”. His marriage to Mercouri was his second, and lasted nearly thirty years until her death. His first marriage, which also lasted thirty years, was to violinist Beatrice Launer, which produced three children, including French pop singer Joe Dassin. Jules Dassin died in 2008 at the age of 96.


Whit Bissell and Ella Raines in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

candid portrait photo of Hollywood cinematographer William Daniels
William Daniels

Everything in “Brute Force” was meticulously shot by cinematic wizard William Daniels. His spectacular use of light vibrantly brings sets to life, credibly suggests the grayness of a rainy day, the crowded expanse of a prison yard, and the claustrophobia of a prison cell or of digging a drain pipe. And he cleverly flashes lights across faces and backgrounds like searchlights, adding tension and atmosphere. His work brings emotional and visual impact to every scene. One of cinema’s greatest cinematographers (and Greta Garbo's cinematographer of choice), Daniels shot many classics, including several already on this blog such as "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", "The Shop Around the Corner", “Camille", and "Queen Christina", and you can read more about the life and career of legendary William Daniels in my post on the latter. Just click on the film title to open the post.


Burt Lancaster stars in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

Portrait photo of hunky Hollywood movie star film actor young Burt Lancaster
Burt Lancaster

Burt Lancaster stars as “Joe Collins”, the man that wants to escape. “Joe” is a man of few words and Lancaster uses his imposing presence, athletic body, and penetrating eyes to convey many of this man’s feelings. A former circus acrobat, the agile, 6’2” Lancaster was a physical actor who used his body as an extension of his character’s emotional state. You can witness it all throughout, from his first scene in the rain towering over “Munsey” and a prison guard as he looks wistfully at his fellow inmate being driven away in a hearse, his slightly bowed position when returning to his cell after solitary, how he leans towards “Gallagher” when asking him to join his escape, or his alert posture when asking his cell mates which position they want during the jail break. Lancaster also softens his face and demeanor in his flashback with “Ruth”, underscoring how prison has hardened “Joe”. Lancaster’s a mighty presence who brims with sensitivity, and this film confirmed him as Hollywood’s hottest new tough guy movie star.


Burt Lancaster smokes a cigarette by his prion window in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

Candid portrait photo of hunky Hollywood movie star film actor young Burt Lancaster
Burt Lancaster

Burt Lancaster hit the screen like a meteor in his screen debut in Hellinger’s “The Killers” the year before, and his mix of rugged masculinity, emotional softness, and animalistic sex appeal, instantly made him a bona fide movie star. He was well aware that much of his allure was his impressive physical presence, as he recounted when talking about stardom in Tony Thomas’ book “Burt Lancaster”: “In my case, it was very much a matter of being in good physical condition. Movies are, in the large sense, a matter of movement and physical excitement, and you can get by if you can move well and have a certain physical presence. And good condition helps in any kind of acting”. Lancaster liked to show off his physique (as he does in “Brute Force”), reportedly working out just before shooting a scene. But he proved more than just a hunky piece of meat, for he could convincingly express an inner fragility while portraying charming, sinister, or often offbeat characters. His talent and magnetism made him a true larger-than-life movie star in a forty-plus year career that included an interesting mix of commercial and artistic films. The American Film Institute (AFI) voted him the # 19th Greatest Male American Screen Legend of All-Time, and you can read more about the life and career of Burt Lancaster in my post on “From Here to Eternity”.


Hume Cronyn and Burt Lancaster in the rain in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

An important point to keep in mind about “Brute Force” is that it was made in the wake of World War II, when the war's horrors, and fears about Nazism, fascism, and authoritarianism filled the air. As such, the film can easily be seen as an existential tale of the horrors of an autocratic or totalitarian system or government, represented by the inept, self-serving prison bureaucracy, and the brutal dictator-like character of “Captain Munsey”, played by Hume Cronyn, who is very Nazi-like in his manipulation, brutality, and hunger for power.


Hume Cronyn in white wife beater tank top with a club in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
"Brute Force"

Portrait photo of Hollywood film and Broadway theater actor movie star character Hume Cronyn young
Hume Cronyn

Hume Cronyn may have been small in stature (5’6" tall and thin), but he brings enough menacing ferociousness to even keep "Joe" in line. “Munsey’s" calm and cool demeanor, his demand to be called “Sir”, and gleeful manipulation can be chilling, not to mention the terrifying scene in his office when he lowers the window shades and plays Richard Wagner on the record player. This man is happily sadistic. There’s also a homoerotic element to “Munsey” as he polishes his large strategically placed gun, has male nude prints and sculptures dotting his office, and even seems to be coming on to “Lister” in one key scene. Throughout all of this, Cronyn is exceptional, striking a wealth of authentic chords to create an entrancing portrait of a frightening man.


Hume Cronyn is a sadistic captain in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

Portrait photo of Hollywood film and Broadway theater actor movie star character Hume Cronyn young
Hume Cronyn

The very talented Hume Cronyn was a featherweight boxer in his college years and studied pre-law before switching to acting. A lifelong theater actor (who also worked in films and TV), Cronyn began on Broadway and first worked with Dassin at the Actors' Laboratory Theatre in New York City. His film career after, with a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 classic “Shadow of a Doubt”, and among Cronyn's other early films was 1944’s “The Seventh Cross” (which earned him a Best Supporting Oscar nomination) and Dassin’s “A Letter for Evie”. Mostly known for playing nice guys, “Brute Force” was a departure for Cronyn and contains easily his most fearsome character. On stage and screen, Cronyn earned a reputation as one of entertainment’s most prominent and distinguished actors. He appeared in nearly forty films, and you can read more about the life and career of Hume Cronyn in my post on "The Postman Always Rings Twice”.


Charles Bickford and Sam Levene in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

The third star of “Brute Force” is the sensational Charles Bickford who plays “Gallagher”, a respected and powerful inmate who after six years in prison has been promised his parole. Bickford is another tremendous actor who overflows with nuanced emotions and fierce intensity. We first meet “Gallagher” in the cafeteria as fellow inmate "Wilson" pleads with him and "Munsey" gives him words of warning, to which "Gallagher" replies, "Like the Book says, we always get what’s coming to us… All of us”, and Bickford packs that line with mounds of subtle feelings. It’s the type of acting that is exhilarating and shows why Bickford was one of Hollywood’s foremost character actors.


Charles Bickford in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

Portrait photo of young Hollywood film actor movie star charaacter actor Charles Bickford
Charles Bickford

Massachusetts-born Charles Bickford was a rambunctious child (tried and acquitted at age nine of the attempted murder of a trolley driver who drove over and killed his dog). He traveled around the country taking odd jobs, including working as a lumberjack and selling exterminator fluid. After serving in the war, he was coaxed into appearing in a burlesque show, which led to a love of acting. He nixed going to college, opting instead for a career on the legitimate stage. By the time he was twenty-one, Bickford was working continually onstage, and made his Broadway debut in 1904's "The Baroness Fiddlesticks". His big break came in 1925’s "Outside Looking", which gained him the attention of Hollywood, and in 1929, he was finally lured to Hollywood and made his screen debut starring in Cecil B. DeMille's first sound film, "Dynamite". Once signed to MGM, he appeared in his fourth film opposite Greta Garbo, 1930’s “Anna Christie”, which made him a star.


Charles Bickford with a gun in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

Portrait photo of older Hollywood film actor movie star charaacter actor Charles Bickford
Charles Bickford

Never quite shedding his volatile nature, Bickford punched DeMille when arguing about his character while making "Dynamite", and often locked heads with MGM head Lous B. Mayer, among other heated squabbles. As a result, Bickford found himself briefly blacklisted from working at Hollywood studios and went independent (rare for an actor in the 1930s). After starring in just over two dozen films, while filming 1935's “East of Java", Bickford was mauled on his neck and shoulders and nearly killed by a 400-pound lion. It took him almost a year to recover and left him scarred. Now with scars and approaching fifty years old, his leading-man career ended, but his talent successfully led him to character parts, and he'd appear in about sixty more films and earn three Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nominations (for 1943's "The Song of Bernadette", 1947's "The Farmer's Daughter", and 1948's "Johnny Belinda").


Charles Bickford and Sam Levene in the print shop in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

A familiar face to classic movie watchers, Bickford appeared in many classics, others of which include "A Star is Born" (1954), "The Big Country", "Of Mice and Men", "Days of Wine and Roses", "Little Miss Marker", 'Fallen Angel", "Duel in the Sun", and his final, 1966's "A Big Hand for the Little Lady". He appeared on nearly thirty television shows, including his final appearance, as "John Grainger" on several seasons of "The Virginian". He married stage actress Beatrice Ursula Allen in 1916, and they remained married until his death. Charles Bickford died in 1967 at the age of 76. He's an actor I love.


the calendar girl in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

“Brute Force” is first and foremost a prison film but also contains the undertones and style of film noir with characters in psychological turmoil, a bleak outlook on life, expressionistic camera work, lots of shadows and chiaroscuro lighting, and irresistible femme fatales. Hellinger insisted on flashbacks showing how several Cell R17 inmates landed behind bars, and in true noir fashion, each because of a woman. Fetching actresses were cast in the roles to heighten box-office appeal, and their scenes serve as a respite from the heavy drama of prison. Each flashback reads like its very own quickly condensed film noir.


Howard Duff and Yvonne De Carlo in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

The top billed femme fatale is Yvonne De Carlo who portrays “Gina Ferrara”, the girlfriend of “Robert ’Soldier’ Becker”. He's an American soldier in Italy during World War II, and she is an Italian woman living in a small town, and they are in love. Not only is De Carlo stunning to look at, but she brings a refreshing touch of melodrama in the middle of all the prison horrors. It’s a welcome and fleeting diversion, and she is emotionally convincing from beginning to end. You’ll notice no attempt by De Carlo to have an Italian accent. That’s because, for the most part, Hollywood didn’t care about accuracy of that sort at that time. Ten years after “Brute Force”, De Carlo became an immortal TV icon.


Yvonne DeCarlo De Carlo is a femme fatale in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

Hollywood glamor portrait of move star film and TV actress young Tvonne De Carlo
Yvonne De Carlo

Abandoned by her father at a very young age, Canadian-born Yvonne De Carlo studied singing and dance, dropped out of high school, and worked in nightclubs and theater before moving to Los Angles with her mother, who both had their sights set on De Carlo becoming a showbiz success. After scoring high in a couple beauty pageants and dancing in nightclubs, she landed her first film job as a bathing beauty in 1941's "Harvard, Here I Come!", followed by a couple of short films and one line in the 1942 classic noir, "This Gun for Hire". She soon signed short-term with Paramount Pictures and appeared in nearly twenty films (mostly in uncredited minor roles) before signing a long-term contract with Universal. She became known as an exotic, sexy glamour girl, which Universal exploited, and her breakthrough came starring in the 1945 Technicolor Western "Salome, Where She Danced". De Carlo starred in B movies and played supporting roles in A films, and other titles from her approximately ninety films include "Song of Scheherazade”, "Slave Girl", "The Captain's Paradise", "Buccaneer's Girl", and as "Sephora" in 1956’s "The Ten Commandments". She worked again with Lancaster and Hellinger in the fabulous 1949 classic noir, “Criss Cross”.


Howard Duff and Yvonne De Carlo in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

Hollywood glamor portrait of move star film and TV actress young Tvonne De Carlo
Yvonne De Carlo

De Carlo appeared in thirty TV shows, starting with a 1952 episode of "Lights Out". She gained immortal fame as "Lily Munster"in the classic sitcom "The Munsters" beginning in 1964. Its popularity spawned two movies (including 1995's "Here Come the Munsters" in which De Carlo made a cameo appearance). Her final acting job was in the 1995 TV movie, "The Barefoot Executive". De Carlo recorded a handful of music singles, the 1956 record album "Yvonne De Carlo Sings”, worked in musical theater, made her only Broadway appearance as "Carlotta Campion" in the original production of Stephen Sondheim's musical “Follies" (where she introduced the song "I'm Still Here”), and published her autobiography, "Yvonne: An Autobiography", in 1987. She was married once, for nearly twenty years to actor and stuntman Bob Morgan, and according to her "kiss and tell" autobiography, had relationships or flings with Billy Wilder, Howard Hughes, Robert Stack, Burt Lancaster (during "Brute Force”), her “Brute Force" scene partner Howard Duff (who she almost married), and Prince Abdul Reza Pahlavi of Iran. Yvonne De Carlo died in 2007 at the age of 84.


Ann Blyth in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

Portrait glamor photo of young Hollywood fillm actress movie star Ann Blyth
Ann Blyth

Another of the femme fatals is someone readers and watchers of the movies on this blog will know, and that’s Ann Blyth, who plays “Ruth”, “Joe’s” young and innocent girlfriend. As with all the women, Blyth appears in just one scene, and her character in particular adds some cheery hopefulness to a rather dark film. A portrait of a woman on a calendar is the catalyst that inspires the inmates to think about the women in their lives, including “Ruth”, and that portrait was actually a composite painting of Blyth, De Carlo, and Ella Raines (who plays “Cora”), painted by John Decker. Blyth was 19 when she made "Brute Force”, having become famous two years earlier as "Veda Pierce" in her Oscar nominated role as Joan Crawford's daughter in "Mildred Pierce". Just after filming that classic, Blyth broke her back tobogganing and took a short break from movies to recover. She returned with Helligner's "Swell Guy” in 1946, followed by "Brute Force". She appeared in nearly fifty films and TV shows, and you can read a bit more about Ann Blyth in my post on "Mildred Pierce". As of this writing, Blyth is 95 years old – one of a few surviving stars of Hollywood's Golden Age and currently the earliest living Oscar nominee in an acting category.


Charles McCraw and Sam Levene in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

Another actor in “Brute Force” that will be familiar to this blog's movie watchers is Sam Levene who plays “Louie Miller”, the convict working as a prison reporter. Levene is wonderful alongside "Gallagher" in the commissary, being sarcastic in the kitchen while pretending to do a story on the food, or in his unnerving scene being interrogated by "Munsey" (the Jewish Levene plays a character assumed to be Jewish, making that scene extra disturbing in post-WWII times). It’s a superb performance by an extremely gifted actor.


Hume Cronyn interrogates Sam Levene in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

Portrait of Hollywood film and Broadway actor movie star Jewish character actor Sam Levene without a mustache
Sam Levene

Russian-born Sam Levene immigrated to the US when he was two years old and grew up in New York City. Working for his brother as a dress cutter but wanting to be a salesman, his brother told him to improve his "poise", so he auditioned at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, was given a scholarship, and ended up a celebrated actor. In addition to lots of additional stage work, Levene debuted on Broadway in 1927 and was soon one of Broadway's greatest stars. He appeared in 39 Broadway shows, his final being the original production of "Horowitz and Mrs. Washington" in 1980. He famously originated the character of "Nathan Detroit" (written specifically for him), in a legendary performance in the original 1950 Broadway musical production of "Guys and Dolls". He was also in the original Broadway casts of "Dinner at Eight" (his breakthrough show), "Margin for Error", "Room Service", "The Sunshine Boys", and "The Devil's Advocate", which earned him a Best Actor Tony Award nomination. He appeared in 67 films and TV shows, including "After the Thin Man", "Shadow of the Thin Man", "Golden Boy", “Designing Woman", and two more with Lancaster, "The Killers" and "Sweet Smell of Success". Those who watch the films on this blog will recognize him as the ill-fated Jew in "Crossfire" His final appearance was in 1970's "...And Justice for All". He was married once. Sam Levene died in 1980 at the age of 75.


Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

“Brute Force” is an ensemble piece filled with loads of talented actors, many of whom will be familiar to classic movie and TV watchers. Because they are so numerous, I’ll only mention two more.


Anita Colby and John Hoyt drive in a car in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

Anita Colby plays "Flossie", the calm, cool, and conniving woman in "Spence's" flashback at the casino, and the elegant Colby fits the bill to a T. Born in Washington DC, Colby was a famous model (sometimes referred to as America's first supermodel) who appeared on over 1500 magazine covers and many billboards, and was nicknamed "The Face". She appeared in only six films, including as "Mary Fleming" opposite Katharine Hepburn in 1936's "Mary of Scotland", and as herself in a cameo in the musical "Cover Girl” (a film in which she also acted as a technical advisor and press agent). "Brute Force” was her final film, followed by a 1963 TV episode of the series "The Christophers". Colby also worked for three years as a fashion stylist at Selznick Studios, and a public relations executive at Paramount. She was the daughter of cartoonist Daniel Francis "Bud" Counihan, who created the "Betty Boop" comic strip among others. She was married once. Anita Colby died in 1992 at the age of 77.


Whit Bissell with glasses in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

Whit Bissell portrays Cell R17 inmate "Tom Lister”, the softest and most sensitive of the bunch, and Bissell superbly makes us feel for this kind man. Born in New York City, Bissell began in theater before making his film debut in a bit part in 1940's "The Sea Hawk", and went on to appear in well over 300 films and TV shows over the next 44 years, often in low budget horror and science fiction films such as "The Creature from the Black Lagoon", "I Was a Teenage Werewolf", "The Time Machine", "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein", "Soylent Green", and non horror films such as "The Caine Mutiny", "The Big Combo", "Seven Days in May", "The Defiant Ones", “The Magnificent Seven", and "The Desperate Hours". He's also appeared in several classics already on this blog including as "Dr. Hill" in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", as "Robert Grau" in "It Should Happen to You", and "Mr. Burris" in "Hud". He was married three times, including marriages to actresses Jennifer Raine and Adrienne Marden. He had one child, actor Brian Forster (best known as "Christopher Partridge" on "The Partridge Family"). Whit Bissell died in 1996 at the age of 86.


John Hoyt, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, Whit Bissell, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

I must at least mention the film’s score by the great Miklós Rózsa, which provides fantastic noir-ish undertones, helping this uneasy world come to life with atmosphere and emotion. You can read more about Rózsa, one of filmdom’s premiere composers, in my post on “Double Indemnity”.


Burt Lancaster behind bars in jail with Jeff Cory, Whit Bissell, and Howard Duff Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, Burt Lancaster, John Hoyt, and Jack Overman in Cell R17 in the classic prison movie Mark Hellinger film noir 1940s "Brute Force"
“Brute Force”

This week's film is a spectacular prison drama about power, told in an unforgettably raw and entertaining style, and is a classic you won't want to miss. Enjoy "Brute Force".



This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform through watching a recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and more. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications of every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!



YOU CAN STREAM OR BUY THE FILM ON AMAZON:



OTHER PLACES YOU CAN BUY THE FILM:


As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, and any and all money will go towards the fees for this blog. Thanks!!

4 Comments


Karen Hannsberry
Karen Hannsberry
a day ago

Really enjoyed this first-rate post, Jay -- I especially liked learning more about the performers, like Anita Colby and Charles Bickford (how crazy about the attempted murder!).


-- Karen

Like
Jay Jacobson
Jay Jacobson
a day ago
Replying to

Thanks Karen! Means a lot coming from you. Bickford's past was pretty crazy...

All my best,

Jay

Like

Carmen Aniorte
Carmen Aniorte
a day ago

Gran trabajo Jay, excelente película con unos actores excelentes encabezado por Burt Lancaster. Hace unos días en TVE emitieron "El tren" un papel brillante.

Like
Jay Jacobson
Jay Jacobson
a day ago
Replying to

Gracias Carmen! It is a great movie with great actors.

And I too love "The Train".

xo,

Jay

Like
bottom of page