Despite being filmed in 1947, Brute Force retains a contemporary feel because of its vision of prison life as hell on earth. Little contrasts with its unrelenting darkness. The prisoners ruthlessly enforce their code of honour, their jailers sadistically torture them and possibly worst of all, the public wants to do nothing more than lock them up and throw away the key. It's truthful, unsentimental and not much fun to watch.
There's little suspense in the story that would give the viewer a break from this grim tale. Movie logic dictates that the residents of Cell R17 at Westgate Penitentiary meet an unhappy end after they drive a fellow prisoner to a gruesome death for betraying their cellmate Joe Collins. Never mind that the betrayer was forced to falsely implicate Joe by Captain Munsey, who speaks softly and enjoys using his big stick on the prisoners. Munsey's aroused by Joe's consistent refusal to submit to his authority, so he settles for sticking it to all the prisoners and even the alcoholic prison doctor. The sadomasochistic, homoerotic relation between the jailer and the jailed gives Brute Force enduring relevance.
Though innovative in that respect, the film's weighed down by heavy-handed writing. Not content with inverting the usual moral order by making the prisoners better and the prison guards the villains, the screenplay makes Munsey the personification of Satan. Munsey boldly opposes Christian beliefs as weak. If that weren't enough, Munsey's nemesis Joe's initials are JC. (Three guesses as to who those initials stand for.) But the religious allegory doesn't take because of Joe's own ruthless, nihilistic behaviour, so the equation of Munsey with the devil becomes overwrought.
Burt Lancaster pulls off a difficult acting job as Joe by conveying both nihilism and square-jawed integrity in his refusal to accept Munsey's superior might as right. Hume Cronyn does his best to shade his villainous Munsey (remember, he is the personification of Satan!) with equal parts of deceptive mild manner and sadism. Characterisations of supporting characters are adequate, not transcending the stereotypes of the Flamboyant Con Man, the Big Dumb Guy, and the obedient soldier conveniently named Soldier in this film.(February 25, 2001)