TALES FROM THE URBAN JUNGLE: BRUTE FORCE (1947) & THE NAKED CITY (1948)
BD. Arrow Academy. Region B. 12.
“High heels on wet pavements…” Cons yearn for the women outside in Brute Force.
“Sometimes I think this whole world is made up of nothing but dirty feet!” A weary scrub woman in The Naked City.
Overcrowded Westgate Penitentiary is nominally run by Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen), a weakling who has, in reality, ceded authority to Captain Munsey, a power hungry sadist (played, believe it or not, by Hume Cronyn) delighting in the physical and psychological abuse of its inmates.
The men squeezed into Cell R17, typically enough, divide their daydreams between the women who are (possibly) waiting for them on the outside (or whose conniving put them there in the first place), fantasies of parole… and getting even with Munsey. Dreaming won’t cut it, though, for tough Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster in a truly galvanising performance). “Nothing’s OK… he tells his roomies: “… it never was and it never will be until we’re out! Got that?”
Burt’s determined to see his ailing girl (Ann Blyth) before she dies and pieces together an audacious escape plan that hinges on him and his cell mates being conscripted to the dreaded drainpipe detail. As Munsey minces around in a singlet, attempting to beat the poop on what’s brewing out of a Collins confidant (while Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture blares from his record player!) the jailbreak erupts in an Apocalyptic climax…
It’s instructive to compare and contrast Jules Dassin’s Brute Force with Howard Hawks’ 1930 prison melodrama The Criminal Code, recently reviewed in these pages. In the latter, for example, Boris Karloff’s dispatch of a snitch, in compliance with one interpretation of the phrase “criminal code”, is effectively but suggestively rendered. Dassin’s film, although ostensibly hampered by another code (the one named after Will Hays) depicts one of Munsey’s abandoned pigeons being summarily executed in altogether more, well, brutal fashion (pulverised in workshop machinery), showcases all manner of other incidental nastiness and concludes in riotous scenes of charnel house intensity… how did he get away with it?
You suspect that Dassin’s searing critique of The American Way was too artfully cloaked in allegory for the assorted Watch Committees and Legions of Decency to grasp. Plus (SPOILER ALERT) the aspiring escapees and their supporting cast of rioting cons are violently suppressed. Sure, the big authority figure also gets his well deserved and spectacular comeuppance but (and I’m being ironic here, just in case anybody needs that spelling out) he’s such an obvious fag, he probably had it coming, right? Perhaps the calypso commentary of Sir Lancelot (a familiar figure from those wonderful Val Lewton films) convinced the censorious that what they were watching was a “mere” piece of entertainment. The one thing Dassin couldn’t get away with indefinitely was his brief (terminated by the Hitler / Stalin pact of 1939) membership of the American Communist Party. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
… before those little red chickens came home to roost, Dassin reassembled his principal Brute Force crew collaborators (Art director John DeCuir, DP William H. Daniels, Miklós Rózsa scoring) for a bravura 180 degree stylistic shift with The Naked City. This one kicks off in classic Noir style, as we view (through the tilted venetian blind slats of her apartment) a blonde being strangled then drowned in her bath tub. Thereafter Dassin eschews elaborate sound stages, within the likes of which the pressure cooker plotting of Brute Force was brought to the boil, in favour of the cityscape of New York itself. I’m not totally convinced by the claim that this film contains no studio set ups at all, but the lion’s share of its (fairly routine) forensic crime storyline unfolds over a hundred Big Apple locations as gently ironic Irish cop Barry Fitzgerald and his Jimmy Stewart-alike rookie sidekick (Don Taylor) pursue their principal person of interest (a harmonica playing wrestler) through its streets, markets, offices, fire escapes, gyms, hairdressers, jewellery stores, lunch counters, building sites, bridges, construction sites, subways, tram cars, offices, wharfs, police precincts, tenement blocks and all the rest of it. NYC is both the film’s story and its main, hyperforceful character (perhaps nothing else could have have followed Lancaster!)
If Brute Force can be said to have strongly influenced individual films (most obviously Sidney Lumet’s 1965 effort The Hill, with which it would make a splendid double bill), The Naked City’s stylistic innovations exerted enormous influence over the whole crime film genre. Hitchcock, who recognised Dassin’s promise when the latter assisted him on Mr. And Mrs. Smith (1941), clearly owed something to him for Vertigo (1958) and the debt is also apparent in another film from the same year, Don Siegel’s The Lineup, though both of those are (at least in part) hymns to San Francisco rather than NYC.
Whether the voice over by “colourful” producer / sometime journalist Mark Hellinger enhances or works against Dassin’s design remains debatable. It would be interesting to watch The Naked City with his narration deleted, as Harrison Ford’s eventually was from Blade Runner (1982)
This is Noir shot under the influence of Italian Neorealism rather than German Expressionism and Neorealism, of course, is but a wisp of capellini away from social realism… not to mention (ulp!) Socialist realism. Refusing to rat his friends out before Joe McCarthy’s Senate sub committee, Dassin was blacklisted, becoming persona non grata in Hollywood… which, gratifyingly, didn’t cramp his style one jot. Relocating to Europe, he plied his trade successfully in France (effectively inventing the heist genre with Riffifi, 1955) and Greece (where he married Melina Mercouri).
As an added “fuck you” to McCarthy, Dassin returned to Hollywood when red-baiting had abated somewhat and resumed making successful movies (notably Topkapi, another heist effort, in 1964). Like Rocky Graziano, somebody up there must have liked him…
For this limited edition set, both films have been painstakingly (it took two years!) restored in 4k (from miserably conserved elements) by TLE, also recently responsible for that much misunderstood and maligned Suspiria restoration. Both films look and sound marvellous though, in each, visuals and soundtracks aren’t always in perfect synch… not on the discs I watched, anyway.
Brute Force extras include Josh Nelson’s commentary track and a visual essay (“Nothing’s Okay”), courtesy of David Cairns & Fiona Watson. Josh Olson, Oscar winning winning screenwriter on Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) talks about the life-changing impact on him of a youthful exposure to this movie. Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life, takes a look at the star’s Noir-heavy early career. Plus theatrical trailers and image gallery.
For The Naked City, David Cairns has collaborated on an audio commentary with actors Steven McNicoll and Francesca Dymond, while Eloise Ross kicks in with an original visual essay. New York and The Naked City is an analysis of the film’s influence on subsequent cinematic portrayals of New York, in efforts ranging from the mainstream to indie / underground / avant garde, delivered by Amy Taubin (somebody who “was there”). The Hollywood Ten is a 1950 documentary short arguing the case for free speech and against the blacklisting and imprisonment of 10 filmmakers who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, including The Naked City’s screenwriter Albert Maltz. In a 2004 personal appearance at LA’s County Museum of Art, Dassin (pictured above) proves himself a winning and waspish raconteur, taking time out to compare America post-9/11 with the McCarthy era. Plus trailer and a gallery of production stills by renowned photojournalist Weegee, whose work was so influential on the look of The Naked City.
An illustrated collector’s booklet includes writing on the films by Alastair Philips, Barry Salt, Sergio Angelini, Andrew Graves, Richard Brooks and Frank Krutnik. The reversible sleeve offers the options of featuring original and newly commissioned artwork.