Criterion Review: The Searing Drama of BRUTE FORCE and THE NAKED CITY

Meticulously restored, these dramatic collaborations by Producer-Director team of Mark Hellinger & Jules Dassin are prime examples of postwar maturity and grit

Released in 1947 and 1948 respectively, Brute Force and The Naked City might not seem to have much similarity on the surface. Brute Force is a powerful prison escape drama starring Burt Lancaster, while The Naked City takes us to the opposite side of the law as police detectives try to solve a difficult murder case.

But what both films have in common, aside from being created by many of the same people continuing to work as a team (among them producer Mark Hellinger, director Jules Dassin, cinematographer Williams Daniels, and composer Miklós Rózsa), is a specific approach of experimentation: trying something boldly different, and ultimately influential.


Led by Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), the prisoners of Cell R17 long for freedom — and with no other hope or prospects for release, will try to seize it any way they can.

Pairing them up with another prison clique with the same ideas, Joe devises a bold and dangerous plan in which both squads will try to make their escape simultaneously. It’s almost certain that one of the teams will get mowed down by the guard tower’s machine gun, but the coordinated approach improves the chances that the other group might escape: the mounted gun cannot cover both of their separate approaches.

Heading up the prison are a trio of key players: an ineffectual warden under immense pressure to quell the prison’s general unrest, a sympathetic doctor who tries to apply compassion to his work, and the sadistic Munsey (Hume Cronyn), the captain of the guards who abuses prisoners and has his eyes on the warden’s job. Cronyn is particularly notable in his villainous role; despite his notably diminutive stature, he “towers” in cruelty and abuse, ruling with fear and intimidation.

Surprisingly, Brute Force reminded me of one other prison drama in particular, and it’s not one that you would probably expect: Orange is the New Black. As in that series, the film takes several detours into its characters’ pasts as they tell their own stories, showing what their lives were like before their sentences, particularly as filtered through their memories of their wives and girlfriends. Besides visually expanding the film’s environments beyond the prison walls, this gives us insight into the characters and their motivation to live free or die trying.

Despite being created during Production Code era, Brute Force managed to work through some sticky issues and censorship inherent to its prison setting, and especially by siding with the criminals. I was shocked by its incredible conclusion, not only as a narrative surprise, but because it somehow made the final cut in that era of heavy censorship.


The Naked City is a police procedural, but with its opening narration it explains very specifically what it’s going for: not only a story in a strict plotting sense, but a snapshot of New York City, a place of a million stories where this is just one. Inspired by the work of photojournalist Arthur Fellig (aka “Weegee”), Hellinger and Dassin eschewed studio-based production and shot on location, soaking in the real streets, buildings, and people of New York.

Police Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (lovable Irishman Barry Fitzgerald) and his investigative team are put on the case of the murder of a young woman, and the film takes you through their dogged investigation — not only the flashy and interesting parts, but also the rote, mundane and unglamorous aspects of police work. Questioning witnesses, pursuing elusive clues, and lots of waiting.

The approach paid off beautifully, as the film consistently exhibits a very authentic, lived-in sense of the city and its people while also being a legitimate murder mystery. This mystery is the biggest thing happening in the lives of all of these people within the story, and yet comparatively only a tiny ripple in the bustling and endless activity of the city.

Like Brute Force, The Naked City is, in its own way, a storytelling experiment breaking new ground and expanding the boundaries of what a feature film could be: in this case, a pioneering example of location as a primary character.

The Packages

Criterion’s editions of Brute Force and The Naked City come in the company’s usual transparent cases and feature booklets with essays and production notes. While sold separately, they’re something of a spiritual pairing, released together and utilizing a similar black and grey art style and bold typeface.

Brute Force’s booklet is particularly meaty, even by Criterion standards: a fairly thick volume at 32 pages, cover to cover. While it features a pair of essays by Michael Atkinson and Pete Martin, what I found most compelling is a collected exchange between Production Code enforcer Joseph Breen, beginning with a list of proposals to censor the script, and producer Mark Hellinger, who grows increasingly irate with changes dumbing down his film.

The Naked City’s 14-page booklet features an essay about the film’s genesis and New York setting, inspired in part by a collected photojournal published under the same title. This booklet also features a personal letter, this one from Hellinger to “Julie”, the director, suggesting how to fix what then appeared to be shaping up as an unsatisfying climax.

Each of the films opens with a similar description of the restoration process which was conducted to create the new “masters”. Due to their original nitrate camera negatives being lost, both films were assembled from secondary sources to preserve and present them in the best possible condition — and very successfully so, as you’d never know it from the incredible quality evident on these Blu-rays.

Special Features and Extras — Brute Force

Both films feature interesting featurettes, which despite being relatively recently made, are interlaced and exhibit some gnarly combing.

• New 4K digital restoration by TLEFilms FIlm Restoration & Preservation Services, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
• English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• 2007 audio commentary featuring film-noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini
• 2007 Interview with Paul Mason, editor of Captured by the Media: Prison Discourse in Popular Culture

• 2017 featurette on Brute Force’s array of acting styles featuring film scholar David Bordwell — I found this particularly interesting. Bordwell describes, among other thoughts, how acting choices often heighten impact and drama rather than reflect realistic behavior, but that false realism rings true as storytelling.

• Trailer
• Stills gallery

• PLUS: An essay by film critic Michael Atkinson, a 1947 profile of producer Mark Hellinger, and rare correspondence between Hellinger and Production Code administrator Joseph Breen over the film’s content

Special Features and Extras — The Naked City

• New 4K digital restoration by TLEFilms FIlm Restoration & Preservation Services, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
• Audio commentary from 1996 featuring screenwriter Malvin Wald
• Interview from 2006 with film scholar Dana Polan

• Interview from 2006 with author James Sanders (Celluloid Skyline) on the film’s New York locations

• Footage of director Jules Dassin from a 2004 appearance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

• Stills gallery
• English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• PLUS: An essay by author and critic Luc Sante and production notes from producer Mark Hellinger to Dassin

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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