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I Hereby Sentence You To. . . .
by Jon Schuller

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This isn't really a place where I'd start a discussion on America's overwhelming prison problem. I'll just say it's the biggest in the world; it's worse than ever; and has been the subject of countless movies and documentaries, old and new. Here's just a few of the famous ones:
20,000 Years in Sing Sing
Birdman of Alcatraz Caged Fury
Castle on the Hudson
Cool Hand Luke
Each Dawn I Die
Escape from Alcatraz
The Green Mile
The Hurricane (1999)
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
An Innocent Man
The Longest Yard (1974)
Pressure Point
The Shawshank Redemption
White Heat

Seeing men (and women) locked up for countless years – even for life – is difficult to watch and, even in comedies, not all that funny. The pressures on everyone inside and outside a prison are simply unbelievable; when a film portrays these stresses and anxieties there are many to choose from. Committing a crime and being punished for it: there are simply no easy answers or remedies.

In June, 1947, a film is released about this subject. Directed by the
famous Frenchman Jules Dassin, produced by Mark Hellinger, with the screenplay by Richard Brooks, Brute Force stars Burt Lancaster as Joe Collins, Hume Cronyn as the sadistic Capt. Munsey and Charles Bickford as Gallagher. The supporting players are a virtual "who's-who" of familiar and talented character actors and actresses:
Sam Levene Howard Duff
Jeff Corey Whit Bissell
John Hoyt Charles McGraw
Jay C. Flippen Ann Blyth
Ella Raines Yvonne De Carlo
Anita Colby

Joe Collins (Lancaster) just spent several long weeks in solitary confinement and has been released. What's new about him is he's now talking about escape. Warden A.J. Barnes (Roman Bohnen) complains about discipline among the prisoners to his senior Captain of the Guard, Munsey (Cronyn), who treats all the men sadistically, forcing them to "rat" each other out and generally making matters worse. Munsey is seen cleaning a weapon as a piece of music by Wagner plays in the background. The drunken prison doctor, Walters (Art Smith), tries to warn the warden about Munsey's methods and the simmering resentment among the
men; it will explode soon if the warden doesn't do something.

Joe's attorney tells him that his wife Ruth (Blyth) won't have a cancer operation without Joe there. We see other women in flashbacks of Joe's #R-17 cellmates' previous lives outside the prison's walls. Each man dreams about his freedom but each of them got into trouble because of these women. At some point they join Joe as he starts planning an escape.

Joe seeks advice from an older inmate, Gallagher (Bickford), who he looks up to as wiser than most. Gallagher runs the prison newspaper and has been promised a parole soon. He turns Joe down. But Captain Munsey, taking the warden's words too seriously, exercises too much authority and a prisoner commits suicide. This prompts more stringent methods and authoritarian rules. Gallagher thinks he's been fooled and decides to help Joe with an escape plan.

The plan is simple: attack (with a truck) and control the guard tower that controls the mechanism to the prison's main gate. Munsey has found out what the scheme is from an informer in cell R17 and allows the men to actually carry out the attack. However, it is doomed from the
start and as they attack the tower and open the main gate, the gate is stuck because a prisoner is killed blocking the gate and access to outside the prison walls. Many men are killed, including the devious Captain Munsey, as Joe and his men watch, horrified, as their dreams of freedom die before them.

Brute Force was welcomed as a vicious portrayal of prison life, only 2 years after the end of World War II. Jules Dassin wanted to show how nasty life inside the walls was and how futile escaping could be. The actors portray their characters with accuracy, even if too easy to identify. If the prisoners are mean, their guardians – especially Hume Cronyn as Captain Munsey – are even worse. An attempt at film noir realism, I think it succeeds without being too clichéd. It was the director's vision to portray a world that was created and then mostly forgotten about as criminals became prisoners, hidden from public view as if they didn't exist anymore. I daresay, we have the same problems 70 years later – only now with more crowded prisons multiplied many times over. I recommend this movie as not just a period piece but a realistic view of society.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Another Great Year for Movies

Some Guy Says You Get Power With Money.

Homage: Respect or Reverence Paid

There's a Call for You. Please Tell Them to Wait.

20 Before. 20 After. 20 Since.

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 29 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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