Friday, June 30, 2017

The Irresistible Force vs. the Immovable Object

Upon first glance, Hume Cronyn seemed miscast as the ruthless prison guard in "Brute Force," which premiered on this day in 1947.

Physically unimposing as he was, though, Cronyn was the perfect choice. His performance effectively demonstrated how an apparently meek — but nevertheless narcissistic — individual can abuse even a dollop of power — and Cronyn's character had considerably more than a dollop of power. He was not above using anyone and anything to achieve his objectives, either.

I honestly felt that the character, with his sadistic personality, should have made the American Film Institute's list of the Top 50 movie villains. But it didn't.

Now, let me be clear. I don't have any issues with AFI's actual choices for its lists of villains and heroes. But the role was so unusual for Cronyn and he played it so well that I thought the performance at least deserved an honorable mention (although I don't think such a designation was available).


The story was essentially a retelling of the fabled irresistible force colliding with the immovable object. Burt Lancaster played an inmate who hated Cronyn and came up with an escape plan after having served a stretch in solitary confinement. It built up to a bloody finish, a riot when the escape plan didn't go very well.

It was good, but I'll be the first to say the movie had its weaknesses.

There were times when the story seemed a bit forced — like when the movie told the stories of the other inmates through flashbacks. To me, it seemed like a rather obvious tactic to introduce women into what was otherwise an all–male cast. And not just any women, either. These women were femme fatales, the ones who (directly or indirectly) were responsible for those men being on the inside while the women remained on the outside.

Clearly there were times when the movie was awash in stereotypes — at least those that existed in the '40s — and the references to World War II do make the story seem dated.

But for a movie that is 70 years old today, I think it has held up rather well.

"Brute Force" provides an unflinching, albeit melodramatic, glimpse into prison conditions for viewers today, but as I say, it is not without its shortcomings.

It really didn't have much to say that was new, even when it was in theaters. Prison movies weren't new when "Brute Force" was made, nor was the idea that conditions behind bars weren't good.

But it may have made that point better than any movie that preceded it.