Wednesday, August 24, 2011



While visiting Chicago last week, I was lucky enough to catch Jules Dassin's BRUTE FORCE, which was showing on 35mm at the Music Box Theater as part of the Film Noir Foundation's Noir City: Chicago series. Dassin made a couple of classic noir films in the 40's and early 50's (THE NAKED CITY, NIGHT AND THE CITY are the other ones I have seen) before Joe McCarthy and his cronies pushed him out of Hollywood. He survived the blacklist by going to France, where he continued to make cool gritty movies into for another 25 years. BRUTE FORCE, made in 1947, is raw bleak noir through and through.

Westgate Penitentiary-- iron, grim, omnivorous, impenetrable upon its island beyond a curtain of fog and rain! We remember Ginsberg:

"What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate their brains and imagination?…Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbones soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgement!"

This is a prison film, and it's about men who have been fed into the grinder. There are a couple of plot lines, but the gist is pretty simple: Westgate is a mancrusher, and the prisoners of cell R-17 (led by Burt Lancaster's Joe Collins) have to get out before it breaks them. More oppressive than the hard labor, the boredom, the overcrowding, is the rule of Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn), chief of security, who demands absolute obedience and submission.

Munsey's rule gives us some insight into the nature of Authority, which operates as a mythology of the social order. The practice of Authority requires its constituents to accept a particular order of power relationships, and each player must accept the terms of their role. Thus, Munsey demands that the prisoners not only acknowledge his superior firepower and ability to mete out punishment, but also that they observe the social customs that reify his role as Keeper of the Law. A "good morning, sir," from each prisoner in the mess hall! (We see Collins buck Munsey's authority early on by refusing to call him "sir", addressing him by name instead.) Munsey asserts himself even as he calls off a guard who strikes a prisoner that has blocked their path, establishing himself as Hierarch, Controller of Force, Dispenser of Mercy.

The orderly detention of the prisoners is only a byproduct of the central pursuit. The true triumph of Munsey and Authority is the ideological victory, the acceptance by the prisoners of his version of the power structure in which he is the master and they are the subjects. He needs them not just to observe the rules but to believe in them. What's at stake, then, is the ability of pride, dignity, and principle to survive the inhuman apparatus.

The single touch of gentleness in the film is the sympathetic portrayal of the prisoners in R-17, most of whom seem to be romantics who have fallen astray of the law. Their stories tend to follow the same lines-- the men break one law or another in an attempt to jump out of their social class or to procure money or goods that are needed to survive yet inaccessible to them. There is a woman in every story, and these dames are collectively represented by a rather chaste looking pin-up that hangs in their cell. This emblem, as a token of belief in their own goodness, is a large part of what keeps the men from breaking under the pressure. The remainder is made up of the internal code practiced by the prisoners-- loyalty, discretion, and the understanding that a snitch is lower than a rat.

The critical scene comes towards the end of the film, as Munsey interrogates a prisoner about Collins' escape plan. Munsey brings the man into his office, handcuffs him to a chair, produces a club, and closes the curtains. The style of the film suddenly switches, breaking from its measured grittiness into a nightmarish expressionism (Wagner's Tannheuser Overture rising on the phonograph). Here, in the dark, we enter one of those hidden chambers of the Social Order where unbound-- even transgressive-- violence lives. These zones occupy a curious place in the power structure-- all constituents must believe in their existence, yet this understanding cannot be acknowledged and these places must never be seen by the public. In other words, Authority and its Law are assured by the perpetual fear of its subjects of the incomprehensible terror and violence that befalls those who violate the rule. Yet this violence must only happen out of the public eye, lest the sense of order and civility of the Authority and Law dissolve. So long as this violence remains behind the curtain, the sense of order and well being may be preserved. This hidden violence, I claim, is the "brute force" of the title.

Slavoj Zizek has been writing a lot on the subject of this "hidden violence" of late, particularly the recent LIVING IN THE END TIMES. A word from the man:

"The obscenity of the barbarian violence…sustains the public face of law and order….Every monument of civilization is a monument of barbarism, has a precise impact on the very notion of being civilized: "to be civilized mean to know one is potentially a barbarian." Every civilization which disavows its barbarian potential has already capitulated to barbarism."

I think it is particularly appropriate that he characterizes the lurking transgressive violence at the heart of the social order as "obscenity", for there is something crass about it, it rubs against our notions of propriety and decorum.

There is certainly a baseness to the BRUTE FORCE's interrogation scene. As the prisoner is brought into Munsey's office, the Captain is out of uniform, polishing his gun at a rather bawdy angle-- he seems to be stroking his big metal death cock. Dassin makes sure to let the viewers notice the objects that decorate Munsey's office: a rack of guns, a picture of himself in uniform, also a muscular sculpture and an intense drawing of a man straining violently with arms bound behind his back. In the frenzy of Munsey's violence, these symbols of order and authority (gun, uniform) are charged with the fetishistic sadomasochistic energy of his art-- the same energy that smolders in the heart of those very institutions.

(some SPOILERS ahead)

In the end, the prisoner refuses to speak. "Any connection between Gallagher and Collins?" Munsey's aid asks. "No. If there was, he would have told me," Munsey responds. The final mundanity of Munsey's brute force is thus revealed. It is inconceivable to him that there could be any principle higher than the body, any cause that could be more powerful than physical pain.

Heroic triumph and beating the system are not themes we see too often in the noir genre-- it's a bleak game, and BRUTE FORCE is no exception. By the end, there's not much that the prisoners can claim as a victory other than their pride. Though Munsey cannot break them, the escape plot is unsuccessful and the status quo perseveres. Authority, after all, is bigger than men. It is an ideological machine. All that matters is the schema and the components may be swapped out and slotted in at any time.

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