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Film / Brute Force (1947)

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Getting out of the big house...shirtless?

Brute Force (1947) is a Film Noir starring Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, and Charles Bickford, with Ann Blyth and Yvonne De Carlo featured in bit parts.

Joe Collins (Lancaster) is returning to the tough Westgate Penitentiary from solitary confinement. He’s back and he wants out more than ever; his wife is dying of cancer. He tells his cellmates in R-17 — including Tom Lister (Whit Bissell), Spencer (John Hoyt), Robert "Soldier" Becker (Howard Duff), Freshman Stack (Jeff Corey), and Kid Coy (Jack Overman) — about his plans. However, they have a large hurdle in the form of head guard Captain Munsey (Cronyn). He’s a power-hungry sadist who makes their lives miserable and manipulates prisoners to turn against their own friends. A main ally, Gallagher (Bickford), is up for parole, so he won't risk going into an escape plan that may not work.

Together, the men must concoct an escape plan without letting Munsey find them out.

Directed by Jules Dassin, who would later become famous for his great heist film, Rififi. Richard Brooks, who would go on to direct such films as Elmer Gantry and In Cold Blood, wrote the screenplay.


  • The Alcatraz: Westgate is surrounded by water and has a drawbridge to connect it to a regular bridge. There’s no escaping from there.
  • The Alcoholic: The prison doctor, Walters, comes to work drunk.
  • Anyone Can Die: The death of Tom is just the beginning. Everyone dies.
  • Battle Amongst the Flames: The final fight between Joe and Munsey takes place in the burning watchtower.
  • Bulletproof Human Shield: After learning that the guards know about the Great Escape, Joe works out who The Stool Pigeon is and ties them to the front of the mine cart to absorb bullets as they charge the machine gun.
  • Chiaroscuro: Some nice shots with the prison bar shadows.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: The cons in the machine start pounding on metal to cover up the sound of The Stool Pigeon Wilson getting attacked by Joe's men.
  • Determinator: Joe Collins even when the Dr. tells him that Munsey knows about the escape, he still goes through with the plan.
  • Disney Villain Death: Munsey's death by Joe; he's thrown from the top of the guard's tower by Joe to be finished off by the rest of the prisoners.
  • Driven to Suicide: Tom. Munsey tells him that his wife, the only person Tom cares about in the world, is divorcing him. Turns out, Munsey was just lying to get information out of Tom.
  • Downer Ending: Nobody gets out of Westgate.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: An escape from prisoner almost never ends well.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Though he tries to pretend otherwise, Munsey is a sadist who is prone to physical and emotional manipulation to keep all the prisoners in line. Explicitly lampshaded by Dr. Walters.
  • Femme Fatale: Spencer tells the story of a woman he met in an illegal gambling place that stole his money and his car at gunpoint. He still can’t forget her.
  • Film Noir
  • Gray Rain of Depression: The film introduces the prison and Joe this way.
  • Great Escape: Joe and Gallagher plan an assault on the guard tower where they can get access to the lever that lowers a bridge that controls access to the prison.
  • Hoist Hero over Head: At the the end of their brutal fight, Joe lifts the unconscious Munsey over his head before hurling him from the watchtower into the prison yard.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Munsey uses a led pipe to break Louie and to make him rat on Joe’s escape plan. He also uses classical music to up the ante in terms of fear.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: How the prisoners treat Wilson’s murder.
  • Molotov Cocktail: How the prisoners attack the guards once Joe and the gang have broken through the drainpipe.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The warden is forced to treat the prisoners with an iron fist and he has to stop all parole boards, causing Gallagher to go against him.
  • Police Brutality: How Munsey decides he’s going to get information out of Louie.
  • Pretty in Mink: Tom stole a $3,000 worth mink coat for his wife (played by Yvonne De Carlo) but they soon get caught.
  • Prison Riot: Happens when the warden resigns and announces that Munsey is going to the new warden.
  • Rag Tag Bunch Of Misfits: Tom’s a petty crook, Spencer is a conman, Kid Coy, is non-too-bright, Robert took the fall for his lover’s murdering ways, Freshman stole things, and Joe was a thief. Together, they’re going to bust out.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Inspired by the then recent Battle of Alcatraz.
  • Shirtless Scene: Lancaster takes off his short for a bit in the beginning, just because.
  • Show With In A Show: The prisoners go see a movie. It’s a real movie from 1947 (they really keep up with new films in this prison!) called The Egg And I, staring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert.
  • Taking You with Me: Joe knows he’s going to die but he wants to make sure Munsey goes down with him and he succeeds right before he succumbs to his injuries.
  • The Stool Pigeon: They don’t treat stoolies very nicely in Westgate. Wilson squeals and so prisoners manage to corner him into a crushing machine. Later on, the reason Munsey finds out about the escape plan is because "Freshman" tells him.
  • Title Drop: The doctor says that Munsey uses "brute force" to exert power over the prisoners.
  • Trailers Always Lie: Posters, in this case. Taglines included "Man Hate! Woman Love!", with images suggesting lots of Fanservice from the ladies. Alas...audiences didn't get anything of the sort, as the women are limited to quick appearances in flashbacks, with little if any Fanservice to speak of.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: The prisoners in R-17 all have flashbacks about their girlfriends/wives which include how they got into jail:
    • Spencer recounts that he did insurance fraud and meet Flossy that way.
    • Robert was a soldier who fell in love with an Italian, who shot her own father that was willing to give them away. Robert took the rap for the murder.
    • Tom stole a mink coat for his wife by fudging up the books at his job.
    • Joe was in a mysterious heist where he stops to see his dying wife for the last time.
  • Wardens Are Evil: The beleaguered warden is is a decent man under pressure to improve discipline. However, his chief of security, Capt. Munsey, is a sadist who manipulates prisoners to inform on one another and create trouble so he can inflict punishment.
  • Wrench Whack: When attacked in the machine shop, Wilson grabs a wrench to defend himself; not that it helps him.