James’s review published on Letterboxd:
Jules Dassin's lean, mean prison noir Brute Force delivers on the promise of its virile title, bursting with the post-war rage and bleak outlook on American life that the industry capitalised on during this period and proffering a level of violence previously unheard of in the 1940s, which although tempered by censors is still quite shocking today.
The film bears strong allegory to the Third Reich, the prison being a not-too-subtle stand in for a concentration camp, its oppressed inhabitants faced with no prospect of escape whilst the sadistic guard Capt. Munsey, played by a suitably detestable Hume Cronyn is just a goose-step away from Nazism. Burt Lancaster's stardom is played up quite a bit, he becomes more of a supporting member of a much broader picture, often sinking into the background, yet his powerful screen presence is captivating, the perfect casting to be the figurehead of a masculine film that demands such bare-chested physicality.
Screenwriter Richard Brooks, who would go on to write classics like Key Largo gives the script a biting ferocity whilst Dassin helms the camera with taut precision, the prison becoming a claustrophobic nightmare of boiling tensions which erupt in a ferocious final act that is both highly satisfying and downbeat, in equal measure. The prison escape movie has been done many times since, though this one isn't to be taken so literally, the overall theme of anti-conformism holds more water and eerily foreshadows the clampdown on liberal, anti-establishment films that would be targeted in the communist witch-hunt a few years after its release.
The brief flashbacks sequences showing the love interests of several of the prisoners has been criticised by some for being superfluous but for me it humanised the characters and showed that they were all in prison because of love and with a good reason to get out. It captures the grim reality of incarceration with a level of realism and understanding of what it does to mental health, the violence being absolutely vital to its cinematic power.