In 1948, Darryl F. Zanuck, president of 20th Century Fox, called Jules Dassin into his office. “Jules,” he may have said, since I wasn’t there. “You’ve been named in Congress as a Communist Sympathizer. You’ll never work in Hollywood again. But that won’t be for a while so you still have time to make another movie for us.”
Dassin finished filming Night and the City but landed on the blacklist after principal photography and was kicked off the studio, barred from editing the final cut, no input on the score, no say on even how the credits would look. He fled to Europe to find work, but American distributors refused to handle movies made by anyone on the blacklist. He didn’t work as a film director again until the French heist film Rififi, 1955.
Flashback to 1947. Dassin was still well-respected as a director and artist in the U.S. and Fox had just released his latest film, a blistering attack on the penal system starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn: Brute Force. Filmed during the adolescence of the Dies Act, also known as the House Un-American Committee. Congress was intent on rooting Communists out from under every bed and was coming down hard on Hollywood. Ten Men, The “Hollywood Ten”, refused to answer their “$64 Dollar Question” (“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States”) and wound up with a one-year prison term.
With a script by Richard Brooks, story by Robert Patterson, there’s an argument to be made that Brute Force was Dassin’s judgment of HUAC. Set in the island-built Westgate Prison, Brute Force focuses on a battle of wills between the prisoners and the guards, headed by chief of security, Captain Munsey (Cronyn). Munsey is a small man with a sadistic streak that broadens as his power increases. He derives pleasure from manipulating the prisoners to inform on one another; even greater pleasure from lying to them or threatening them into betrayal. The men are crammed six-to-a-cell and spend their days working in the various shops or in “the drainpipe”, digging a sewer system from one end of the island to the other. Due to overcrowding, not every convict has a job—unemployment even in prison—and with nothing to do with their time, they focus on ugly thoughts.
The men of Cell R17 watch through their window as Joe Collins (Lancaster) is brought out of solitary on yet another rainy night. Munsey watches with satisfaction as Joe sneers at him. “Perhaps now you’ve learned not to carry a shiv, Joe. Or are you still maintaining that it was planted on you?”
In point of fact, it was planted on Joe, under Munsey’s coercion. And his fellow cons know who the culprit is. Their method of justice is to force him, using blowtorches, into a licence plate press.
The prison’s gutless Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) is under pressure to improve discipline, under penalty of losing his position. The murders and fights do not look good to the public eye. Munsey takes advantage of the warden’s predicament and sows further seeds of destruction, particularly amongst Joe Collins and his cellmates in R17.
A close-knit bunch, not quite a gang, have shared their stories of what they’re in for. In nearly every case, it involves a woman. Tom Lister (Whit Bissell), for instance, didn’t have the money to buy his wife a fur coat, the only thing she ever wanted. He enables this purchase by embezzling from his employers. “Soldier” (Howard Duff) has been in and out of prison since WWII, when he smuggled food to a resistence faction led by his wife. When she guns down an informant, he takes the rap. His quest to get back to her in Italy has been one stretch after another. Spencer (the terrific John Hoyt) has all sorts of stories, all of them involving dames, schemes and the wild life.
Joe’s wife (Ann Blyth) is an invalid. He turns to crime to finance her recovery. On his last job, he’s thrown in prison and she has no idea that he’s there. Now, according to his friend and attorney, she’s succumbing to cancer and refuses treatment until Joe returns. That ups the ante for Joe and he’s determined to escape.
Turning to a con named Gallagher (Charles Bickford) working for the prison newspaper, Joe tries to get the older man in on the scheme. In response, Gallagher turns to his star reporter, Louie. “Louie? The bust out still on?”
Louie: “Everything works, we go next Tuesday.”
Gallagher: “Next Tuesday. It’s been ‘next Tuesday’ for 12 years. Twelve years from now it’ll still be next Tuesday. They promised me my parole. When I go, I’m walking out of here.”
Lancaster (Collins) “Next Tuesday?”
Munsey ups the pressure on the warden using little tricks like lying to Lister that his wife is filing for divorce, prompting the man to hang himself. This paves the way to accuse one of the cellmates of murder. Which must go on official report, enraging the officials above. Privileges are revoked. The prison’s doctor, Walters, can see the strain on the prisoners, takes on that strain himself and tries to purge it with alcohol. As the only thing close to a conscience Munsey has, Walters is agast at the captain’s treatment of the convicts. “Kindness is a weakness,” Munsey says, smug smile and flared nostrils. “Weakness is an infection that will destroy us all.”
“I know in medicine that you don’t cure a sick man by making him sicker,” says the Doc. “In here, you’re returning a man into the world a worse criminal than he came in.”
Finally, with the prison about to blow, Gallagher’s discovers that all parole has been revoked “indefinitely”. He joins Joe and the men from R17 in a plot to escape. The prisoners begin scrounging for things they need: tools, Molotov cocktails, a revolver. The plan is to hijack one of the mining cars from the drainpipe and storm the guard tower. But there’s a traitor in R17 and Muncie learns about the plan at once. To get the details, he tries to beat info out of one of the prisoners, using a rubber hose and Wagner arias. Sheer brutality. The powderkeg finally blows in a firey and remarkably violent climax and a horrific end for R17’s Judas.
Whether or not Brute Force is an analogy for HUAC and the treatment of the Hollywood Ten is certainly open to debate. The parallels are undeniable. The sadistic Muncie in control and drunk with power (Senator Joe McCarthy), undermining a superior whose hands are tied with indecision (President Truman, arguably) and without the authority to over-ride the power he’s given Muncie’s actions (Congress). The prisoners with their code against betrayal and naming names (Hollywood and the rest of America), and six men crammed into a single cell for things they’ve done or might have done (The Hollywood Ten, some who were genuine communists, some who just attended meetings). The lone difference is that The Hollywood Ten didn’t have a Joe Collins. They definitely had a traitor in their midst (director Edward Dmytryk, again arguably) and Hollywood had plenty as well. As for Dr. Walters, he may well represent anyone in Hollywood or the Heartland who saw what was happening but was too afraid, too helpless, to powerless to speak up too loudly.
When Dassin finally returned to the United States, the blacklist had ended not with a speeding mine car and a wall of flame into which Joe McCarthy was hurled, but, among other acts of bravery, with Otto Preminger’s public announcement of his hiring Dalton Trumbo to write Exodus. There was no violent uprising from the American People, no growl of rage from Burt Lancaster. Hollywood just waited HUAC out, until Commie actors no longer seemed like a problem in the face of yet another looming war. In the end, it wasn’t Dalton Trumbo who brought an end to HUAC, but Dylan Thomas’ prescient words: “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”