Here we are in the dark territories again, the republic of bitternesses and bile known as noir, squaring our jaws against an amoral universe and roaming the rain-wet, lightless American City as if it were a circle of the inferno where backstabbers, goldbricks, and unfortunates march in closed patterns and puzzle their fate. What does noir mean to us now? The long second childhood the genre enjoyed as retro co-optations, remakes, advertising totems, and comic-book riffs has come and gone it seems (the superselfconscious likes of Sin City notwithstanding), allowing us to return to the original films themselves, in pristine, remastered DVD form, by the bargeload. Dozens of favorite noirs sit comfortably on the culture’s top shelf today, like bottles of antique brandy, while the box-office champs of the same era (Forever Amber, The Jolson Story, The Road to Rio, Samson and Delilah, The Greatest Show on Earth, White Christmas, etc.) have been long dismissed and largely forgotten. This greatest of all American film genres still speaks to our modern doubts, and remains ever cool.
Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947) has a particular edge—not only is it arguably the meatiest and most resonant prison film ever made in this country, but it also exudes a startling degree of metaphoric frisson. For one thing, it draws explicit parallels to the Nazi encampment experience, making it one of the first Hollywood films to explore, even by proxy, those fresh wounds (preceded, as far as I know, only by Gregory Ratoff’s 1945 Constance Bennett vehicle Paris Underground). From the storm-battered credits overture (surely one of the most atmospheric openings of the forties) to the vision of the prison’s gun towers and giant front gates, the long black raincoats of the guards, and the concept of Hume Cronyn’s nebbishy, fake-cultured, torture-happy Nietzschean captain, Dassin’s nasty, intimate film fairly shivers with fascist portents. It’s indicative that, singularly among prison film characters, the cons we meet (escape plotter Burt Lancaster, romantic Whit Bissell, centrist gang leader Charles Bickford, urbane playboy John Hoyt, manly martyr Howard Duff, huddled as if in a tribal tent) are all morally righteous men with large hearts, either guilty of a harmless crime, of thievery in the name of love, or not guilty of anything we’re told about at all. Their bonded, self-sacrificial brotherhood plays more like the dynamic between grunts in a POW camp, where the staff screws are always the only enemy.
It’s a master noir trope: if the postwar American landscape is a luckless, angst-laden war zone, then prisons are where our captured proletariat—the soldiers of the class war—are locked up. Wax existentialist about noir all you want (the discussion often echoes how Cahiers du cinéma critic Luc Moullet defined Edgar G. Ulmer’s career theme: “The great loneliness of man without God”; or, as Tom Neal’s schmuck-hero laments in Ulmer’s Detour, “Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you”), but eventually the veneer of metaphysics dissolves, and the genre’s secret radical politics emerges like an underpainting. The lower-middle-class civilian has no genuine antagonist outside of the system, the prerigged establishment designed to either exploit, enslave, or exile him. The American dream as such is a tissue of propaganda, a lie invented for crowd control. However much we may or may not buy into it, we stand no significant chance on a socioeconomic battlefield commanded by corrupt corporate Mr. Bigs, who acquired their wealth while the labor classes went to war (famously, there’s no valuable distinction between George Macready’s officious kingpin in 1946’s Gilda and a legitimate businessman). Noir is Yankee socialism, textualized for the masses.
Which is where Brute Force’s cold equations can get dangerous: convicts = soldiers and/or civilian freight = the oppressed masses, and guards = Nazis = capitalist strongmen. It’s all hardly coincidence: Dassin, raised in Yiddish Harlem and trained in the leftist Jewish theater, before getting hired by MGM in 1941, was one of Hollywood’s loudest radical voices and destined for blacklisting. He only made films in the United States, in and out of producer Mark Hellinger’s shadowy, macho shop of urban horrors, for seven years before Darryl Zanuck came to him in 1949 (Dassin was days away from being HUAC summoned), handed him a script to make in England (Night and the City), and told him to get out of Dodge. Dassin’s expatriateship was not a picnic at first—the studios informed their European contacts that no Dassin-affiliated project would be released in the United States, a ruling apparently rescinded, in effect, by the success of Rififi (1955). In the decades since, Dassin has been a Greek, kept afloat by Never on Sunday (1960), the most successful imported film in the United States for the next twenty years, and perpetually committed to battling juntas.
For Dassin, the evocation of the Third Reich may have just been punctuation, in order to thunder home the revolutionary agenda—the quintessential struggle for liberation against colonialist/imperialist/authoritarian power. The movie’s political archetypes are as purely visceral and iconic as those in Soviet propaganda, indelible to even the uneducated, particularly in the climactic uprising of the prisoners, Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth,” in a hopeless but defiant firebomb-throwing act of resistance. The lowest form of slave work in this lockup is “the drainpipe,” a massive, endless, unsanitary excavation project that is defined as a kind of establishmentarian Kafka-trope: “Nobody knows where that drainpipe is goin’,” one inmate intones, “or where it’ll come out, or even if it’ll ever be used.”
Certainly, Lancaster’s chiseled freedom fighter could compose a socialist realist poster all by himself, and the flabby, cowardly warden, played by Roman Bohnen—a man who reaps power and profits while his minions do the dirty work of terrorizing the populace—is a Marxist stereotype, the overfed powermonger at the top of the pyramid. But Cronyn’s Captain Munsey is the crucial figure, a calm, obsequious tyrant capable of success as either a Nazi Party member or Enron executive and with, it is slowly revealed, a capacity for rubber-hose torture the likes of which American film had been up to that point blissfully unaware. “Wrong answer,” he calmly hisses to a pulped victim, in an almost Orwellian brand of brain rape, not long before he’s seen methodically washing blood off his hands and arms. “That’s why you’d never resign from this prison,” the prison’s drunken humanist-doctor (Art Smith) spits at Munsey. “Where else would you find so many helpless flies to stick pins into?” (The aphorism-rich script is by fellow traveler Richard Brooks, from an unpublished story written the same year he penned Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire.) When the lit match hits the gasoline, only a few things are certain: since this is noir, the escape these beleaguered, hopeful workingmen attempt is doomed to failure, and since this is Hollywood (though it could as easily be Soyuzfilm), Munsey will find justice at the hand of an avenging prole, just as his type of man so rarely will in real life.
An urban animal of the lower classes, Dassin made the first prison film not really about criminal justice at all but about social power, which is noir’s secret fuel, and maybe why it has lasted. Other favorite genres (westerns, musicals, costume dramas) have most often been exercises in naïveté—noir is for the meat eaters among us, the emotional discussion American film culture has had with its audience about why modern socioeconomic structures fail the majority of citizens. For Dassin, this one time, it was more than a discussion—it was a manning of the ramparts.
A film critic for the Village Voice for thirteen years, Michael Atkinson is the author of Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema and the editor of Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood.