Hardened convict Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is a "lifer" in the maximum security prison of Westgate Penitentiary. Together with his old boss Gallagher (Charles Bickford) - who is also doing time as the prison's newspaper editor - he plans an elaborate escape. But tyrannical head guard Captain Munsey (a brilliant Hume Cronyn) suspects a breakout is afoot and will go to any lengths to prevent it. In one intensely harrowing sequence in his office he interrogates inmate Louie Miller (Sam Levene) about the impending escape and savagely beats him with a hosepipe as Wagner's Tannhauser plays full volume on the phonograph. But Louie endures and tells him nothing. However through another informant Munsey learns the date and time of the escape and prepares his guards accordingly to thwart the breakout. With Collins getting even with the "stoolie" the picture ends in a bloody and vicious battle between the guards and convicts with many deaths on each side including Collins and Munsey who have it out in a climactic and spectacular fight atop the gate tower.
The acting is nothing short of superb! In only his second movie (after Hellinger's "The Killers" the previous year) Lancaster is especially good as the recalcitrant and difficult Collins ("You're not fit for civil life and you won't accept prison life" Munsey chides him.) Good too is Charles Bickford, Roman Bohnen as the weak and ineffectual Warden and really excellent is Art Smith as the kindly but perpetually hammered prison doctor ("Yes Capt. Munsey - I'm just a very ordinary man. I get drunk on whiskey but you sir - you get drunk on power".) But there's little doubt the picture belongs to Cronyn. In a powerful portrayal of the highest degree he simply chews up every bit of scenery there is as the sadistic and dictatorial Captain Munsey. Also of note is the score by the great Miklos Rozsa. Almost eclipsing his music for "The Killers" his brooding score here pinpoints the seediness and the ever present potential for danger and death within the prison. His sombre main theme, heard in its broadest rendition under the titles, is a slow dirge-like piece reflecting the despair and hopelessness of those incarcerated in a high security establishment. BRUTE FORCE is one of the composer's best noir scores.
The picture only has one drawback - the various and needless flashbacks depicting the women in some of the prisoner's lives. These scenes are merely padding and quiet unnecessary. They do nothing really for the movie except break the atmospheric continuity that already had been so well achieved and established. But thankfully they don't last very long and they make up what is only a minor quibble and does not prevent BRUTE FORCE remaining one of the finest gems from Hollywood's golden past.