As hard-hitting as its title, Brute Force was the first of Jules Dassin’s forays into the crime genre, a prison melodrama that takes a critical look at American society as well. Burt Lancaster is the timeworn Joe Collins, who, along with his fellow inmates, lives under the heavy thumb of the sadistic, power-tripping guard Captain Munsey (a riveting Hume Cronyn). Only Collins’s dreams of escape keep him going, but how can he possibly bust out of Munsey’s chains? Matter-of-fact and ferocious, Brute Force builds to an explosive climax that shows the lengths men will go to when fighting for their freedom.
Jules Dassin’s prison film Brute Force receives a new Blu-ray upgrade from The Criterion Collection, who present the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Like the companion release The Naked City, Criterion isn’t simply reusing the same high-definition restoration that was used for their previous DVD edition of the film and are instead using a new 4K restoration, encoded here at 1080p/24hz. Completed over the period of a couple of years, the new restoration was scanned from four sources, though primarily from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master positive and a safety duplicate negative.
As with with Criterion's Blu-ray of The Naked City, the upgrade and improvements found here over Criterion’s previous DVD are significant. The DVD, while sharp enough a majority of the time (it can be a little fuzzy around the edges), still showed its age, with damage being a bit of a hindrance. All of those scratches, marks, and frame shifts are now gone for the most part, and the image is clean and stable. Contrast and grayscale also look far better (the DVD was a bit too dark), and the blending of the grays is far better, lending the image a more photographic look.
The encode is also solid, detail levels looking far better (the finer textures of the prison and its grounds look almost life-like) and the image looks far sharper than the DVD. Grain is also rendered nicely, looking pretty fine most of the time with a trickle of instances where it gets heavier. I also didn’t notice any digital problems. It’s a very sharp looking presentation, much better than I was expecting, and its worth upgrading over the DVD just for the picture improvement alone.
The audio, presented here in lossless PCM mono, also sounds a bit better than the DVD's offering. It’s sharp and stable with no pops or drops and there is also a fair amount of range to be found. When volumes get higher it can sound a wee-bit distorted, but I’d put that down more to age. Otherwise I was impressed with the overall quality.
Similar to their Blu-ray edition of The Naked City Criterion ports everything over from their DVD edition. Things start off again with the scholarly 2007 audio commentary headed by “film-noir specialsts” Alain Silver and James Ursini. The two cover a wide array of topics around the film, from its producer Mark Hellinger and some of his other credits (which include Siodmak’s The Killers and Criss Cross) to the film’s expressionistic look. They also talk about the anti-fascist message found within the film (inspired by a rise in the right-wing during the period after the war) and then talk about the actors and their performances, particularly from Lancaster and Hume Cronyn. It flows a lot better than the screenwriter commentary found on The Naked City and the two do manage to keep the track going at a decent beat while they examine the film from a number of different angles.
The commentary is a strong one, and that helps because the supplements feel pretty slim otherwise. Criterion does add one new feature to this edition that wasn’t found on the DVD, a 13-minute interview with film scholar David Bordwell, filmed in 2017 for The Criterion Channel. In it Bordwell examines the acting styles along with how Dassin frames them in certain scenes to give different effects. There is also an interview from 2007 (found on the original DVD edition for the film) featuring Paul Mason. Mason spends his 16-minutes looking at the film as a prison picture, going over the history of the genre and how it’s been used to represent social issues through differing eras. He also offers his own observations on why the genre can have such a pull with audiences and looks at how the genre changed and morphed through the decades. It ends up being a rather insightful yet fun inclusion.
After that is the film’s trailer and then a stills gallery, offering a number of production photos along with some promotional material. The gallery differs from the DVD’s version by presenting the gallery as a video and not a navigable gallery. It runs about 4-minutes. Criterion also ports over the excellent booklet (32-pages here), which presents an essay on the film written by Michael Atkinson, followed by the reprint of a profile on producer Mark Hellinger written for The Saturday Evening Post. One of the releases best inclusions, though, are reprints of the correspondence between Hellinger and the MPAA’s Joseph Breen over the content in the film. The initial letter from Breen, going over Brute Force’s script, shows the film would have had more violence (possibly guards being killed on screen, a big no-no), references to “dope,” and the phrase “for God’s sake,” all of which needed to be omitted according to Breen. He also addresses concern over how the women would be dressed in flashbacks. While that’s fascinating, what follows is gold as we get to see a couple of back-and-forth letters between the two around the finished film, and Hellinger is not happy with Breen. Great stuff!
That on its own makes up for the lack of much else, though the release still feels a little slim.
Offering a striking improvement over Criterion’s previous DVD, everything is ported over from that edition (with one new supplement) while also providing a huge upgrade in the film’s actual presentation thanks to a new 4K restoration. A very easy recommendation.