Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tough Guys In Cages

There are guys who play tough in the movies.

You know who they are. They’re the guys who think six months in the gym and a David Mamet screenplay makes them tough.

And then there are tough guys who happen to do movies for a living. One of the best of them was Burt Lancaster. He became a star in 1947's Brute Force, a nasty prison noir directed by Jules Dassin. Burt plays Joe Collins, the toughest inmate in the cell block, and he’s planning to get the hell out.

Burt was one of those actors who was just as rugged behind the camera as he was in front of it. Therefore, he’s able to invest his Joe Collins character with a solid bedrock of strength and integrity that a fraud like Tom Cruise can’t. Burt’s sweaty charisma is so strong, you can see why the other prisoners listen to Joe. In a scary, malignant tumor of a performance, Hume Cronyn is Captain Munsey, the head of the prison guards, a sadistic son of a bitch, and Joe’s nemesis.

The Granddaddy of the brutal men-behind-bars genre, Brute Force holds up impressively well. A defiant and outspoken survivor of the Hollywood Blacklist in the 1950s, Dassin directs this gripping drama with a barely-suppressed rage, and he leaves you no doubt as to where his sympathies lie. Most of the convicts are idealized Good Men Who Made A Bad (boo hoo) Mistake, while the prison guards are faceless thugs in uniform that get horny beating up people. Does it work? Hell, yeah.

On one level, Brute Force is a raw, in-your-face melodrama. On another, it’s a political metaphor of individuals fighting against an oppressive regime. Either way, you can’t lose.

Criterion's “Brand New & Improved!” DVD of Brute Force is beautiful. The print has been so well-scrubbed it gleams, the commentary features a fascinating conversation with film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini, and there’s a booklet with an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson. It’s a first class, handsomely-designed edition, and Brute Force deserves it.

Brute Force is the tough old guy in jail the other inmates leave alone because even though he ain't got no teeth, he's ready to tear your throat out. Sure, Jules Dassin's classic film is over fifty years old, but it can still hurt you.