Today’s movie is the film noir Brute Force (1947). It tells the tale of a group of prisoners that tell their story using a pin-up picture in their cell. It is noted that the inspiration and violence in this movie is in direct response to the Battle of Alcatraz, May 2-4, 1946. At the federal prisoner in San Francisco Bay, the prisoner fought until their deaths even though their situation was hopeless. Ironically, Burt Lancaster, playing the role of Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), helped to end the Alcatraz escape attempt. Of course, this part of the movie is not based in historical fact.
The pin-up picture of the woman used in the film is said to be a composite of actresses Yvonne De Carlo, Ann Blyth, and Ella Raines, by painter John Decker. I don’t see it.
This prison movie had a rather large cast included 10 actors that we have covered previously. So here I go.
Burt Lancaster played prisoner leader Joe Collins. The great Burt Lancaster was covered in Episode 30 – Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).
Whit Bissell played lovesick prisoner Tom Lister. This was Bissell’s first credited role. We covered Bissell in Episode 30 – Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).
Ray Teal was uncredited as evil Capt. Munsey’s evil toady Guard Jackson. That’s right double evil. Teal was introduced in Episode 60 – The Command (1954).
Charles Bickford played Gallagher, the prisoner that was walking the line between guards and cons. Bickford was covered in Episode 5 – Of Mice and Men (1939).
John Hoyt played Spencer, former high roller and tough as nails con. Hoyt was covered in Episode 78 – The Big Combo (1955)
Roman Bohnen was cast as the weak will prison Warden, A.J. Barnes. Bohnen was covered in Episode 5 – Of Mice and Men (1939)
Sir Lancelot played Calypso, basically the only African American prisoner, who provided impromptu Calypso songs for the inmates. Sir Lancelot was covered in Episode 42 – I Walked With a Zombie (1943).
Jay C. Flippen played guard Hodges. Flippen was covered in Episode 71 – Cat Ballou (1965).
Glenn Strange was uncredited as prisoner Tompkins. Strange was covered in Episode 76 – House of Frankenstein (1944).
Hume Cronyn played the role of the sadistic Capt. Munsey, the chief prison guard. Cronyn was born in Canada in 1911. Cronyn graduated from college having changed his studies to drama. During this time he was an amateur boxer and was recommended for the 1932 Canadian Olympic boxing team.
Cronyn studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and debuted on Broadway in 1934. His first movie was Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Some of the movies that followed include Lifeboat (1944), The Locket (1946), Rope (1948), Under Capricorn (1949), The Seventh Cross (1944) where he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and Hamlet (1964). One of my favorite movies from this period was People Will Talk (1951). Cronyn played an angry doctor trying to take down another doctor played by Cary Grant.
Cronyn and to a degree his wife Jessica Tandy had a resurgence. He played a mean school supervisor in Conrack (1974), was in The World According to Garp (1982), Brewster’s Millions (1985), the hugely popular Cocoon (1985), *batteries not included (1987), Cocoon: The Return (1988), and The Pelican Brief (1993).
Cronyn died in 2003 in Connecticut.
1993 The Pelican Brief – Justice Rosenberg
1988 Cocoon: The Return – Joseph ‘Joe’ Finley
1987 *batteries not included – Frank Riley
1985 Cocoon – Joe Finley
1985 Brewster’s Millions – Rupert Horn
1982 The World According to Garp – Mr. Fields
1974 Conrack – Mr. Skeffington (School Superintendent)
1951 People Will Talk – Prof. Rodney Elwell
Brute Force (1947)
1947 The Beginning or the End – Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer
1946 The Postman Always Rings Twice – Arthur Keats
1945 Main Street After Dark – Keller
1944 Lifeboat – Stanley Garrett
The Seventh Cross (1944)
1943 The Cross of Lorraine – Duval
1943 Phantom of the Opera – Gerard
1943 Shadow of a Doubt – Herbie Hawkins
Ann Blyth played the role of Ruth. Ann was born in 1928 in New York State. As a youth, she sang in a choir and was in several Broadway musicals. When her play traveled to LA she was given a contract with Universal. She started right away in musicals such as Chip Off the Old Block (1944), The Merry Monahans (1944), and Babes on Swing Street (1944). When Ann switched to Warner Bros. she got the role of Veda in Mildred Pierce (1945) and a best-supporting-actress nomination.
During the filming of Danger Signal (1945), Ann broke her back. She was still in a wheelchair when she filmed Brute Force (1947). She started getting better roles such as Swell Guy (1946), Killer McCoy (1947), Another Part of the Forest (1948), Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), and Once More, My Darling (1949).
During the 1950s she was on fire with Our Very Own (1950), Thunder on the Hill (1951), The Great Caruso (1951), Katie Did It (1951), and The World in His Arms (1952). However, she turned back to musicals. She starred in Rose Marie (1954), Kismet (1955), The Student Prince (1954), and The King’s Thief (1955). But as the musicals died so did her career. She had a couple of bounces with The Buster Keaton Story (1957) co-starring with Donald O’Connor The Helen Morgan Story (1957). After this, it was mostly theater and television.
Ella Raines was cast as Cora Lister. Raines was born in 1920 in Washington. After college, she headed to New York to be an actress. She was signed to play Randolph Scott’s girlfriend Corvette K-225 (1943). Later she was in Tall in the Saddle (1944) with John Wayne. She was in many A-movies some of which include Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), Impact (1949), and Phantom Lady (1944). She had a TV series called “Janet Dean, Registered Nurse” 1954. However, her career was essentially over. She died in 1988.
Anita Colby was great as Flossie. Colby was born in 1914 in DC. She is known for Cover Girl (1944), Brute Force (1947), and Mary of Scotland (1936). She died in 1992.
Other actors include Sam Levene as Louie Miller, Jeff Corey as ‘Freshman’ Stack, Jack Overman as Kid Coy, Vince Barnett as Muggsy, Charles McGraw as Andy, and Art Smith as the drunken Dr. Walters.
This noir drama takes place at the overcrowded Westgate Penitentiary sometime after World War II. The prison is surrounded by water and only connected to land by a bridge. The bridge has a drawbridge section controlled by the guards in the front tower. At 6 am on a rainy morning, the men are awakened and counted. Of course, Calypso (Sir Lancelot) sings his reply. In the next crowded cell are Spencer (John Hoyt), Soldier Becker (Howard Duff), Freshman Stack (Jeff Corey), Tom Lister (Whit Bissell), and Kid Coy (Jack Overman). They have a rather odd pin-up over the sink of a female face that has her eyes closed. To me, it looks like she is dead.
Out the window of the cell, they see a hearse carrying out Franky. They say he died because Captain Munsey made the 62-year old con work in the drain pipe. They see their other cell mate, Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) flanked by guards Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) and Guard Jackson (Ray Teal) view the departing dead man. The guards try to goad Collins into fighting. Collins has been in the hole for ten days on the charge of carry a shiv. Collins says the weapon was a plan.
As Collins walks down the hallway he meets Dr. Walters (Art Smith). The doc is ashamed that he never visited Collins in the hole, so I assume the doc was unable or too weak to save the life of Franky.
Collins joins his mates in the cell and finds out the Kid Coy has been moved into Franky’s bunk. Collins establishes that Coy will follow his lead and he is accepted. They say they have made arrangements to take care of the stool pigeon. Collins says nothing will be right until they are out.
Next, they move into the prison chow hall for breakfast. Prisoner Wilson is running around trying to get help. He eventually arrives at prisoners Gallagher (Charles Bickford) and Louie Miller Sam Levene). Louie tells Gallagher that Wilson is doing 5-years for false impersonation and that he planted the shiv on Collins. Wilson protests that Captain Munsey made his plant the weapon. Gallagher refuses to help. Munsey and his toady Jackson come in among the prisoners. Wilson tries to talk to Munsey but they give him the brush off with no concern. When Munsey leans on Gallagher tells him that the Bible says everyone gets what they deserve eventually. Later Lister bumps into Munsey and Jackson begins to club him. Munsey won’t let his assistant hurt the man.
Calypso works in the Docs office. The Doc has a few drinks before his morning meeting. The very weak Warden A.J. Barnes (Roman Bohnen) is being chewed out by his boss for the problems that are happing at the prison. The warden talks about the overcrowding and lack of work. The boss says if there are any more problems there will be some firings. You can almost see Munsey slobbering for the head job.
Collins gets a visit from her attorney (Howland Chamberlain) and he tells her that Ruth won’t go through with a life or death operation without Collins around. The Doc tries to keep a man out of the drain pipe but knuckles under to Munsey. Collins hangs out with the Doc and establishes a time alibi. He also asks the Doc about cancer and the surgery his girlfriend needs.
Down in the metal working room, the prisoners fake a fight. When the guards are distracted, Soldier, Coy, and Spencer use blow torches to force the stoolie Wilson into a metal crusher where he dies horribly.
Gallagher runs the prison paper and uses Louie to run messages. Collins comes in to visit Gallagher and asks him to join in on a break-out. Gallagher thinks he is going to get parole soon.
That night Collins heads to the infirmary to see a friend. Coy asks about the picture and each of the other prisoners see somebody special in the pin-up picture. Spencer tells the story of meeting Flossie (Anita Colby). He met her in Miami and they did some illegal gambling. When the police raided she carried his gun and let him out. As they drove away in his car she robbed him of his money, his car, and his gun. Did she steal his mojo?
Collins meets with his dying friend that delivers the message on how to escape using the drain pipe. He is told he has to ask Soldier how they took hill 633. Four of the other five prisoners go to the movie and Lister stays behind to write letters to a wife that never writes back. He looks at the pin-up and remembers the poverty stricken life he had with his wife (Ella Raines) before he began embezzling from his company to buy her nice things like fur coats. He said he had to do it because they were heading for a split-up. Of course, he got caught. Munsey comes to the cell and tries to turn Lister into a stoolie. Munsey tortures him about his wife not writing back. When Lister refuses to rat on the others Munsey gives him a message that his wife is divorcing him.
The warden addresses the prisoners and says all of their privileges will be revoked if there is more trouble. Lister is found hanging dead in the cell. Munsey assigns the remaining five cellmates to the drain pipe. That night Collins asks Soldier how they took hill 633 in Italy. Basically, they attacked from two directions simultaneously.
In the morning they get a message from the warden that all privileges have been revoked. Gallagher goes to see the warden about the mass punishment. Gallagher is told that all parole hearings have been canceled indefinitely. The weak warden asks if he can still count on Gallagher. He is answered with a stare.
Louie goes to the kitchen and sends a message to Collins in the drain pipe. The lunch man is escorted down by a guard (Jay C. Flippen). In the tower where the gate is controlled, they have a 50-caliber machine gun that can either cover the prison yard or the drain pipe entrance, not both.
The message is delivered to Collins that Gallagher is in on the escape. Later Gallagher and Collins meet in the chapel. Guards sit in the back and watch as they go over the plan. The cons in the yard will attack the gate with dynamite and the men in the drain pipe will attack the tower from the other side. They set the attack for 12:15 the next day.
Soldier starts remembering his story and it goes back to a small town in Italy during the war. He is stealing American food and taking it to Gina (Yvonne De Carlo) a woman he calls his wife. Her father hates him and begins to turn him into the military police. Gina uses Soldier’s gun to shoot down her father but he takes the rap.
The big boss is coming back in the morning and the warden is lamenting his dilemma with Munsey and the Doc. The Doc gets drunk and calls Munsey power mad and says he probably lied to Lister about his wife. Munsey eventually slaps the Doc.
That night Collins wakes, looks at the pin-up, and remembers his story. He is part of a stick-up mob on the way to pull off a job. They stop a Collins’ the house where his wife Ruth (Ann Blyth) lives. She is in a wheelchair. He tells her pretty soon she will be well but it seems he gets caught before he makes it back.
In the morning the plan goes into motion. Collins takes the pin-up down and hides it in his shirt. Louie goes to the auto shop. He talks to Andy (Charles McGraw) and is shown guns and Molotov cocktails. Louie brings a gun back to Gallagher and says they can’t get any dynamite. Gallagher sends Louie to the drain pipe to see if the escape is still on but he is intercepted by Jackson and Munsey. Louie is chained to a chair and beaten with a hose by Munsey while classical music plays loudly. Although he is brutally beaten, he does not break. Munsey reveals to Louie that he knows the time of the escape. However, because Louie stood up to the beating he doesn’t know that Gallagher is in on the plan. Munsey spreads a story that Louie got hurt coming back from the drain pipe so Gallagher thinks the escape is a go.
When Collins does get a message at lunch, he assumes everything is on schedule. The Doc comes to see Collins in the drain pipe and tells him that Louie was beaten and that Munsey knows the plan. The Doc tells him that Munsey will kill Collins to make himself warden. The Doc also tells that there is a stoolie amount the four men with Collins. Collins asks each man which position they want during the break. They all say whatever Collins wants but Freshman says last and Collins knows he is the stoolie.
Munsey and Jackson go to the tower and they have another 50-caliber on the ground facing the drain pipe. Munsey takes over the tower gun.
In the drain pipe, they jump the guards and tie them up. Upstairs the warden is forced to resign by the big boss. He makes the announcement that he has resigned and the big boss says Munsey will be taking over the prison. This starts an unplanned riot in the yard. Munsey keeps the guns trained on the drain pipe. Andy brings the truck into the yard and they throw the firebombs at the gate and tower. They also have guns and start shooting. The 50-caliber from the tower opens up on the yard.
Back in the drain pipe Freshman has been tied to the front of the ore car and is being pushed towards the waiting ambush. The other four ride on the back as the machine gun opens on them. Spencer is hit and falls off. Coy get hit but climbs to the top of the car and does a spiderman leap onto the machine gun crew. Collins get a 45-caliber Thompson machine gun and break into the tower. Guard Jackson shoots Soldier as he is retrieving one of the 50-caliber machine guns. Collins kills Jackson and another guard coming down the stairs and is wounded. Up in the tower, Munsey is having a grand old time shooting at the cons in the yard. Gallagher jumps into the now burning truck and rams the gate. Collins makes it to the top of the tower and tries to open the gate. However, they swing inward and are blocked by the truck,
Collins and Munsey begin fight hand to hand but the larger Collins lifts Munsey over his head and throws him into the yard. The prisoners there descend on him like hungry wolves. Collins sees the dying Gallagher in the truck and sits down. More guards come and the prisoners in the yard are dispersed with tear gas.
Later the empty cell of the five men is shown and the Doc is in the next one taking a slug out of Calypso’s arm. The Doc talks about all of the failed prison escapes. The Doc looks into the camera and says no one really escapes.
I wanted to take a minute to discuss femme fatales. Do any of the four women featured in this mostly male film exhibit any of the elements of a classic femme fatale? I like the Wikipedia definition – A femme fatale tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, and sexual allure. In some situations, she uses lies or coercion rather than charm.
Flossie (Anita Colby) sure fits the elements of the definition. Her hidden purpose was robbery but did it lead to Spencer’s downfall. That certainly wasn’t her goal. Gina (Yvonne De Carlo) had beauty, charm, and sexual allure. Her goal didn’t seem to be bringing Soldier down. Her only goal seemed to be fed. Was it a plot and planned the entire time? Cora Lister (Ella Raines) had beauty, charm, and sexual allure. She of all the women seemed to be a true femme fatale. She was ready to leave when she didn’t have material items. Also if she truly never did write to Lister she was only in it for herself. There is a possibility that Munsey was holding up the mail. Ruth (Ann Blyth) had beauty, charm, and probably sexual allure. Her weaken brought down the bad man but she seemed to be pure goodness with no motives. This made Collins the embodiment of pure evil to Ruth’s goodness. So 2 ½ to 3 femmes and one pure as snow. Comments?
World-Famous Short Summary – Girls just want to have fun
If you enjoyed this week’s show please tell your friends and it you really want to help drop over to iTunes to give me a review. If you want to comment, recommend a movie, or just say hi, follow the links in the show notes to my site.
Beware the moors