Starring: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford
Director: Jules Dassin
Jules Dassin’s noir prison drama was hard hitting for its time in all kinds of ways. It paints an intense, sweltering portrait of men penned up six to a cell, and brews an atmosphere where you can almost smell the sweat, the testosterone and the paranoia.
Wearing its liberal heart on its sleeve, the script (by Richard Brooks, who would go on to be a notable director in his own right) tries to engage the audiences’ interest in the – then as now rather unsexy – prison reform agenda by expressing it in terms people in 1947 would understand, those of WWII, which was then still fresh in the memory. The inmates are suffering under what is essentially a fascist regime. The warden is an ineffectual puppet, bullied by his political superiors, and the man really in charge is the chief guard Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), an out and out Nazi who listens to Wagner while he beats up prisoners with a phallic-looking piece of hosepipe, and who has an extensive system of informants, so you never know who to trust. There are times, as he struts around delivering camp zinger lines (“I get quite a kick from censoring the mail”) that you almost feel you’re watching not a prison movie but a prisoner of war movie.
There are only three ways of reacting to this regime – collaborate, stand up to it or escape. A sympathetic example of the first option is provided by Gallagher (Charles Bickford), who was something big on the outside and has lots of pull, but who has decided to toe the line until his parole hearing comes up, in the hopes that along the way he can make things a little better for his fellow inmates. The third option is the one preferred by Joe (Burt Lancaster), but his glowering, imposing presence can’t help catching Munsey’s eye and they clash repeatedly.
It’s to Dassin’s credit that, with all this symbolism washing around, Westgate Penitentiary still feels like a real prison with real inmates. He’s helped by three strong central performances: Cronyn, sharp and weaselly; Bickford, a decent man struggling with his conscience; and Lancaster, nostrils flaring, so taut with bottled up fury that you could bounce pennies off him. The smaller roles are nicely fleshed out by character actors whose faces all seem to have stories to tell. There are astute touches, such as the big clocks everywhere, reminding the inmates of the passing of time, or the moment when Joe receives a message hidden in a sandwich and he eats the whole thing, note and all, with great satisfaction. And when the story shifts to the “drain-pipe”, a tunnel-building project that is the lowest circle of this particular hell, it’s realized with a water-logged immediacy that makes you think of Zola’s Germinal. Also, the violence is surprisingly tough for the era, particularly a sequence where a stool-pigeon is hounded with blowtorches in the machine-room until he finally gets crushed to death under a giant steam press.
Some mawkish flashbacks to the world outside and the women the inmates have left behind give the film a soft underbelly that it could have done without, but it redeems itself totally with a concluding prison riot that has to be one of the most vitriolic ever put on screen. Molotov cocktails are thrown, Lewis guns rattle, Joe and Munsey have a furious showdown. It all boils over into a fearsome spectacle of social collapse and anarchy, and there’s a scene of a wounded inmate clinging to the front of a trundling minecart that even seems to foreshadow the existential defiance of John Voight’s feral character in Runaway Train.
The HD transfer has a smidgeon of grain and a couple of fleeting scratches, but is otherwise very clean and all those vistas of metal bars have a lovely feeling of depth. In an early scene where Lancaster takes his shirt off, you can clearly see the freckles on his back. It’s now possible to really appreciate William H. Daniel’s stark, high key, monumental cinematography which makes the characters look like they’re carved in stone. (Daniels had an extraordinary career by the way, starting in the depths of the silent era, taking in masterpiece such as Dinner at Eight and Ninotchka, and going on right into the ’60s with films like Valley of the Dolls.)
The disc comes with a very nice 38-minute interview with Kate Buford, Lancaster’s biographer. She talks in detail about his early years in the circus and the army, then his big break on Broadway which led to him being snapped up by Hollywood. She then takes us through the films of his early noir period and the formation of his own very successful production company. All very interesting, except that she doesn’t make any mention of the star’s alleged wild side – but then that’s probably worth a whole separate featurette.