There are over 1,000 movies in the Criterion Collection, these are two of them. Jules Dassin has five films thus far in the collection with Brute Force and The Naked City receiving a Blu-ray upgrade this week. Between 1947 and 1950, Dassin made four film noirs, three of which are considered some of the best in the genre. These two are on that list.
I came to Jules Dassin via Rififi his classic heist film (also in the Criterion Collection) from 1956. It is one of the greatest robbery films ever put to celluloid. It was made in France and I always assumed Dassin was a French filmmaker. When I learned he made Brute Force and The Naked City, I figured they were made sometime after Rififi when he’d moved to America. In fact, I got that in the wrong order. He was born in Connecticut and raised in Harlem. He made a number of films in America before being blacklisted for his Communist sympathies and emigrated to France where the first film he made was Riffifi (after a five-year absence from the cinema). These are the things you learn with the Criterion Collection. Or at least while researching their films in order to write a review of them.
Like its namesake suggests Brute Force is a violent, shocking, and yes, brutal film. Burt Lancaster stars (in his third film role – Desert Fury, his actual first film had its release date delayed putting The Killers and Brute Force in front of it). He plays Joe Collins, a prisoner at Westgate Prison who is desperate to get out by any means possible. The Warden (Roman Bohnen) is sympathetic to the prisoners and seems to really want to help them, but he is ineffectual. He leaves the day-to-day doings of the prison to Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), a sadistic creep with eyes for the warden’s job who prefers harsh discipline and torture over rehabilitation.
Dassin shows his penchant for procedure walking us through various aspects of the prison from the warden’s office through the kitchen, cafeteria, newspaper office, wood shop, mechanic shop, to the cells. We see the men at work, at their meals, and in their cells playing games, shooting the breeze, and scheming.
The Naked City made one year later in 1948 relies even heavier on procedures. Shot documentary-style on the streets of New York City, it follows the homicide investigation of a woman strangled to death in her apartment. Lead by Lt. Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald), the police arrive at the scene to gather evidence. They look for fingerprints, ask the maid about any stolen jewelry, and note that this single woman has a pair of men’s pajamas in her hamper. They follow each lead meticulously to its end. Officers check every jewelry store in Manhattan looking to see if anyone has tried to sell anything matching the description of the missing jewelry. They visit department stores to find who sold the pajamas. Sometimes, a lead goes nowhere and they have to start all over. Sometimes, it leads to another clue and they follow up on it as far as they can.
Dassin is there for it all. He follows the case step by step just as the police follow up every lead. We watch the men go door to door passing around photos of a suspect. We see them interviewing merchants. Every time they find something, they come back to Muldoon to keep him up to speed and let him tell them what’s next. Dassin seems to have loved his procedures as he continued the strategy with Rififi, showing that the film’s group of thieves go over and over each and every step for their next robbery.
Brute Force eventually breaks from the strategy moving away from procedure and climbs straight into an action thriller. Desperate to break free from the horrors of the prison, Joe Collins hatches an escape plan based upon an old war maneuver. Just outside the prison gates is a tunnel the prisoners have been digging for some time. Nobody seems to know what its purpose is, or where it will come out but its harsh conditions make it yet another way for Muncie to torture inmates who have gone out of his favor. It will also make a perfect launching pad for a break-out. A tower with a lone machine gun stands over the gate and must be taken out in order for the prisoners to escape. Collins figures if they can attack both from the prison grounds and the tunnel, they can overwhelm the tower. It ends in a fury of bullets, explosions, flames, and death.
The Naked City ends as it begins: with a narrator telling us that the city is full of stories. It never falters from its procedural stye. It had a great influence on thousands of police procedurals that followed. TV series like Dragnet and Law & Order follow directly in its footsteps. It is clear that our cultural understanding of the crime genre would be a great deal different were it not for The Naked City. Watching it today it doesn’t feel all that original or daring. It plays like all those other procedurals that fill up our screens. It is still quite enjoyable to watch, but it definitely feels a little played out, even if it is the original.
Brute Force is much more emotionally impacting. It doesn’t come out looking all that original either. What you see is pretty much what you get and what you get can be summed up in that title. But its gritty, unflinching violence packs a wallop. There is some – studio mandated – attempts to soften the blows with backstories for the main prisoners. They all involve women whose attentions pushed the men into the criminal life. It gives the characters backstories but slows down the film’s momentum.
Both films are fine entries into the crime genres and film noir. The black and white photography is evocative and beautiful, especially The Naked City with its New York backdrop. There are some stunning views of the skyline. The acting in that film is passable, but nothing exceptional. Barry Fitzgerald’s Irish cop is a bit too cliched for my liking but it works well enough. It is hard to believe that Brute Force was so early in Lancaster’s career. He’s got his style down pat. Everything you think of when you think of Burt Lancaster is already there. He plays it to perfection. Hume Croyn is a revelation. I know him mostly from his more genteel roles in the 1980s, in films like Cocoon and Batteries Not Included* but here he’s a real sadistic bastard. It’s magnificent.
Both The Naked City and Brute Force come with new 4K transfers. The original film elements have been lost for both films and Criterion breaks down the painstaking process that TLEFilms Film Restoration & Preservation Services went through in order to restore the films. They both look fantastic. Extras for both films include archival audio commentaries and interviews, plus excerpts from an interview Jules Dassin did at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2004. Also included are full-color booklets with essays on the films.