Nick Bianco is caught during a botched jewellery heist. The prosecution offer him a more lenient sentence if he squeals on his accomplices but he doesn't roll over on them. Three years into the sentence an event changes his mind.
At overcrowded Westgate Penitentiary, where violence and fear are the norm and the warden has less power than guards and leading prisoners, the least contented prisoner is tough, single-minded Joe Collins. Most of all, Joe hates chief guard Captain Munsey, a petty dictator who glories in absolute power. After one infraction too many, Joe and his cell-mates are put on the dreaded drain pipe detail; prompting an escape scheme that has every chance of turning into a bloodbath.Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
Though I'd only previously watched this movie once almost 25 years ago on a long-defunct Sicilian TV channel called Antenna 10, some scenes have stuck with me to this day and being able to reacquaint myself with the film was a long-cherished prospect which, thanks to Criterion, I now have.
The film is the epitome of the great, hard-hitting prison dramas of the 1930s, but the style in which it was filmed also makes it fall in the "Film Noir" category. This was only Burt Lancaster's second movie but he is already a tough, powerful screen presence and his character is one of the most respected within the prison community. The casting (in characterizations which would be much imitated in subsequent prison films) is perfection: pint-sized Hume Cronyn is very effectively cast against type as the quintessential brutal prison captain of the guards, Charles Bickford is the bigwig inmate who gets things done, Sam Levene is his reporter sidekick. Lancaster's gang includes Howard Duff (making his film debut), Jeff Corey (as a surprising 'rat'), suave ladies' man John Hoyt and Whit Bissell as the most vulnerable and least likely inmate who falls victim to Cronyn's "brute force". There's also Jay C. Flippen as an easy-going prison guard, Sir Lancelot as a happy-go-lucky jack-of-all-trades whose songs often sarcastically comment on the action, Vince Barnett as an old-timer who brings food (and messages) to the most dangerous inmates currently serving in the drainpipes, and an uncredited Charles McGraw as an arms dealer. Actually, one of the best roles in the film the alcoholic, philosophizing prison doctor who is the only one genuinely interested in the fate of his "patients" is splendidly portrayed by an actor who was unknown to me, Art Smith, and his confrontations with Cronyn offer some of the film's quiet highlights.
While the film itself offers relatively little new in terms of plot a few of the prisoners are planning a breakout, the sadistic and power-hungry captain is more evil than the inmates themselves, an informer is punished during a staged scuffle, a traitor is present within Lancaster's gang, the climactic escape is a botched massacre, etc and some of the plot points rather contrived Sam Levene being sent to the drainpipes, which results in his being tortured by Cronyn but Dassin's assured handling still makes all of these situations work superbly well. Ironically, after a period directing mostly light fare, this was the start of a peerless run of five noir classics culminating in his celebrated caper film, RIFIFI (1955), made while exiled in France. Curiously enough, another Hollywood exile would later on basically make the British equivalent of BRUTE FORCE i.e. Joseph Losey's exceptional THE CRIMINAL (1960) while the failed prison break (in similar circumstances) also brings to mind Jacques Becker's masterful swan song, LE TROU (1960).
Like THE KILLERS (1946) before it, this was a Mark Hellinger production (it features no less than four actors from that film) and so would be Dassin's follow-up THE NAKED CITY (1948). Miklos Rozsa's music is very good and subtly underscores the action. Unfortunately, the four flashback sequences added to the film to show that the hardened criminals here are good-natured people at heart, are mostly redundant and basically only serve to provide some female interest to the story; still, they are brief enough not be detrimental to the film's overall uncompromising bleakness. Incidentally, while screenwriter Richard Brooks was involved in this capacity with several noirs the others being THE KILLERS itself, CROSSFIRE (1947), KEY LARGO (1948) and MYSTERY STREET (1950; which I recently acquired via Warners' fourth "Film Noir Collection" but have yet to watch) he never revisited the genre once he graduated to the director's chair (though some sources do list his Mexican Revolution-set CRISIS  and the crusading newspaper story DEADLINE U.S.A.  under this flexible banner).
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