Steve G 💚’s review published on Letterboxd:
Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write - don't fuck with Hume Cronyn!
Admittedly, I've probably not seen all that many films with him in but my experience of him has generally been of quite gentile characters. But in Brute Force? What a bastard!
I really did enjoy this film but I think older prison films suffer perhaps as much as any genre compared to their younger counterparts. This is a genre of film that needs violence and sadism to get its point across a lot of the time and, made as it was in 1947, there was only so much that Jules Dassin could show. Yet like Don Siegel would manage several years later in Riot In Cell Block 11, Dassin creates the grim and violent atmosphere required despite censorial restrictions.
The murder of a stool pigeon fairly early on, not to mention a vicious end brawl, probably had Will Hays getting all twitchy. Good. Even so, Brute Force has been followed by almost 70 years of prison films mostly doing much the same thing, and in most cases not doing it as well. As such, a lot of what Dassin has achieved could be seen as being watered down by inferior future releases. It's not so much that it's dated itself but been dated by others.
If you can cut through that, however, this is a really excellent prison film. Burt Lancaster is superb in the lead role, but I'm not saying anything there that you didn't already know. Whilst he was perhaps most renowned as one of Hollywood's leading tough guys, what I always like about his performances is his ability to stir in a lot of sensitivity and humanity at the same time.
Here he's not just some prison toughy. He's genuinely emotionally fragile and he is marvellous at showing the desperation his character has to get out of his overcrowded cell. Cronyn, meanwhile, is terrifyingly good. With an emotionless face and a calm voice that virtually never wavers, his Captain Munsey might not throw his weight around as much as other noted prison guard bastards, but he still manages to be just as chilling, if not more so.
The flashbacks used to describe the back stories of the escapees are a fairly easy way of trying to categorise these chaps but perhaps not actually all that necessary. Furthermore, Sir Lancelot's constantly singing con is an annoyance that I struggled to shake off in the scenes that he's in. Even so, Dassin has created a film here that's every bit as claustrophobic, oppressive and filthy as it should be considering what's going on in Brute Force.