Five minutes into Buffalo ‘66, Billy Brown needs to find a bathroom. To remedy this situation, he decides to return to the prison from which he was just released, a move that immediately characterizes the film’s protagonist as a lost soul.
On a winter day in Buffalo, New York, a misty glow emanates from the overcast sky while high contrast reveals saturated colors. This scene provides the setting for Buffalo ‘66. Shot on reversal 35mm film, the effect in Vincent Gallo’s 1998 movie––both vintage and other-wordly––blurs the line between Billy’s internal struggle and his external reality. Although we can deduce the story takes place during the mid to late 1990s, the film’s sets and costumes obscure the time period in Buffalo ‘66; for example, a 1960s radio and dial phone sit on a motel nightstand, lending a dreamlike atmosphere to this darkly comic melodrama.
The film’s narrative poses a central question: why does Billy Brown bet on the Buffalo Bills to win Super Bowl XXV, knowing the consequences of losing? Resigning himself to the reality of his situation, Billy admits, “I’m fucked. And I’m dead.” The bet is an act of desperation rivalled only by his attempt to reconnect with his emotionally unavailable parents.
His desperation is revealed in a tableau-style dinner scene, where the recently kidnapped Layla (Christina Ricci) shines with sharp wit as Billy’s new “wife,” inventing the tale of Billy’s success in the CIA and the story of how the young couple fell in love. Magically lit in a shimmering blue dress, Layla is a light that illuminates the dark oblivion of Billy’s home. Jan Brown’s (Angelica Huston) hilarious fanaticism for the Buffalo Bills (their home is a virtual shrine) raises the tension of the homecoming scene while Jimmy Brown’s (Ben Gazarra) torch-light-song sung in spotlight adds an element of surrealism.
Almost an exaggeration of bully, Billy’s behavior toward both Layla and his friend Rocky (aka Goon) is cruel and abusive, but not surprising. What really stands out is how they respond to him. Layla observes Billy’s behavior and reacts to his controlling anger, but never with fear or feelings of subjugation. Staying true to herself, Layla seems to function as a mirror for Billy; her character allows the protagonist to see himself and his value.
Resisting Billy’s aggressive demands, Rocky protests when Billy calls him Goon: “I don’t want people to call me that no more, even you,” he asserts, as he refuses to help Billy locate the Bills’ kicker who missed the winning field goal, Scott Wood. “You shouldn’t go down there,” Rocky advises, “don’t go down there. Don’t do bad things.”
In contrast, the bowling alley scene provides slow motion close ups of Billy and Layla as they settle in, creating a meditative feel and depicting a shift in the film’s mood. The feel-good scene shows Billy and Layla performing in turns––Billy, “The King,” bowls strike after strike, and Layla performs an iconic tap dance to the sad sexy song “Moonchild” by King Crimson.
Toward the end of the film, the slow-motion and freeze-frame shots (which precede similar techniques used in The Matrix) at Scott Wood’s strip club build stylized suspense, intensified by the driving sounds of “Heart of the Sunrise” by Yes. Confronted with his ultimate dilemma, Billy’s vision of his potential future is imagined in a Dickensesque way, and he virtually explodes with emotion in the final throes. In the end, Billy seems to take to heart the message from the billboard towering over the bowling alley parking lot, and it’s hard not to be happy for him.
Buffalo ’66 screens at Trylon on Thursday, November 7 as part of the Volunteer Programmer’s series. The film was programmed by Ann Romine, Trylon volunteer since 2009. Find details and more info about the screening on our website.
Working freelance doesn’t pay much, but it does afford one time. A couple of years ago, I used my ample time to create a film podcast. I titled it The Drunk Projectionist. The name sounds cool, but when it comes to movies, I’m quite sober. My movie pod hustle resulted in seven episodes, including an in-depth interview with Charles Burnett, the African-American director of Killer of Sheep, screening on 35mm to open the Trylon’s CHARLES BURNETT’S WATTS series on Nov. 3.
I saw Killer of Sheep during its commercial, art house release. Its images of children playing underneath railroad cars, jumping between buildings, riding bicycles and hanging around adults fixing sinks took my breath away. Everything felt so real. That’s because it was a reflection of Burnett’s life. Unlike his white University of Southern California classmates, Burnett grew up in Watts. While they fretted about labor unions and sexual revolution, Burnett turned his camera on his neighborhood, spending weekends filming the story of Stan, a slaughterhouse worker struggling with depression, his children and his wife.
Frustrated by money problems, Stan finds respite in moments of simple beauty: the warmth of a teacup against his cheek, slow dancing with his wife, holding his daughter. The film offers no solutions; it merely presents life — sometimes hauntingly bleak, sometimes filled with transcendent joy and gentle humor.
Critic Terrence Rafferty of GQ called Killer of Sheep “one of the most striking debuts in movie history.” The film was shot in roughly a year of weekends on a budget of less than $10,000, paid for partially by a $3,000 grant, and also out of the pocket of Burnett himself. Shot on location, the film offers an episodic narrative with gritty documentary-style cinematography. Killer of Sheep won the critic’s prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival and was named to the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1990.
According to Sally Hubbard, who wrote the program notes to the film at the 10th Festival of Preservation, “Killer of Sheep was almost impossible to see for many years, and was available only on poor quality 16mm prints. This 35mm restoration was made from the deteriorated original 16mm negative, and 16mm and 35mm soundtracks.”
— Todd Melby is a Trylon volunteer. He’s writing a book about Fargo, the 1996 Coen Brothers movie. Learn more about his interpretation of Fargo here.
See the entire schedule for the Trylon’s CHARLES BURNETT’S WATTS series here.
In a memorable Brain Damage scene, a junkyard security guard, quietly and unseen,
observes a nice young man in ecstasy, so transported by the mind-blowing,
euphoria-inducing spectacle of a dirty pile of smashed-up cars that he can’t
help but proclaim his rapture to the stars.
The look on that guard’s face––a kind of
delighted, hypnotized stupor––is very similar to the look I had on my face the
first time I saw this movie.
Essentially a horror-comedy about addiction, Brain Damage follows Brian––a perfect
prototype of a late-80s-white-guy-creature-feature-protagonist––as he navigates
the complexities of his troubled relationship with Elmer––an ancient, slug-like
parasite who lives in the bathtub and eats brains. Even though Elmer is a
manipulative, disgusting, veiny monster whose single aim is to murder people by
eating their brains, he has a couple qualities that make him hard for Brian to
quit: he’s very charismatic, has a great singing voice, and has the
devil-may-care attitude and friendly demeanor of your favorite uncle the game
show host. And perhaps more significantly, he is the sole source of a highly
addictive drug that induces such a perfect combination of body high and
transcendent mind-state that Brian would rather sign on as the long-term
partner of a gruesome serial murderer than get clean.
But it’s a struggle for him, and lead actor
Rick Hearst really commits. Brain Damage was
his first job out of drama school, his first opportunity to use his classical
training to inhabit the reality of this guy Brian, who, from the moment we meet
him, is under the thrall of a phallic turd monster. We don’t get to learn much
about Brian, really––we know he lives with his brother, has a girlfriend named
Barbara, has his own room, and might be into punk (there’s a brief shot of a
Siouxsie and the Banshees poster in his apartment). Does he have a job? Is he a
student? No one knows.
But the integrity with which Hearst immerses
himself in Brian’s grimy, vomit-soaked, hallucinogenic reality gives the
character more depth than any amount of expositional detail could. Throughout
the film, Brian is caught in a psychological standoff between his conviction
that murder is wrong and his desperate need to get high. This is perhaps most
evident in the scene that shows Brian’s withdrawal from Elmer juice: we see him
writhing on the floor, sweating blood in his own filth as he watches himself
pull his own decaying brains out of his ear. It is intense, grisly stuff, not
brought on by the usual horror movie culprits of haunting or demonic
possession, but by plain old everyday addiction. Brain Damage,this
bizarro 80s cult film, is on to something true and disturbing about humans’ overwhelming
desire for pleasure, and it may make you squirm in your seat.
So it’s all the more jarring that Elmer
himself is so goofy. Not because the effects are sloppy–– quite the contrary,
the makeup and practical effects are fantastic––but because his entire
character design is just silly. From the moment he appears, peeking out from
behind Brian’s head with a friendly “Hi!,” Elmer is exactly the opposite of what
you expect. With cartoonish eyes, an innocent grin, and a refined voice thick
with wisdom and life experience, Elmer sings a jaunty song from his perch in
the sink as Brian plunges deeper and deeper into his own personal hell. Elmer
is so charming that he’s almost cute, which is extraordinary, since the film’s
talented effects team were clearly emphasizing the similarities between Elmer
and a poo-stained, penis-bodied leech.
Make no mistake, though, this leech is a
hunter. By promising Brian hits of “his juice,” Elmer compels him to wander
through the dangerous streets and back alleys of New York City during the
drug-fueled crime wave of the late 1980s. This reality saturates the film,
especially given the fact that most of the movie was shot in a studio built by the
filmmaking team in a particularly rough NYC neighborhood. High as a kite and
feeling no pain, Brian wanders through landscapes pulsating with synth beats
and a maze of decaying infrastructure and forgotten corners washed over in neon
light, ferrying Elmer to his next victim, whose brain he devours in
increasingly creative ways. Writer/director
Frank Henenlotter didn’t have quite enough material for a full 90-minute
feature, so to go the distance, he stretches out each shot, each scene,
ever-so-slightly to fill the time––a technique that becomes more and more
disconcerting the stranger and more demented Elmer’s attacks become. Once you see
the scene in the alley behind Club Hell, I’m confident you’ll know exactly what
Strip away the layers of strangeness and the
psychedelic punk-rock aesthetic that make Brain
Damage so bombastic, and you’ll find an anxious downward-spiral-addiction-parable
at its core that is riveting. However, Brain
Damage‘s spirit is emphatically fun, almost joyful. I left the theater
after my first late-night screening bubbling over with things to say,
enthusiastically gushing, surprised, energized, inspired.
Not unlike Brian freaking out in the junkyard,
Damage movie family members include:
… and it is playing at the Trylon from Friday, October 11 to Sunday, October 13. Tickets are available at trylon.org. Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy this psychedelic splatterfest in a theater with friends!
|Matt Levine| Bogey and Bacall. Tracy and Hepburn. Loren and Mastroianni. Giannini and Melato? As far as fabled onscreen couples go, the two leads who costarred in a number of Lina Wertmüller’s films in the 1970s – including three playing at the Trylon, The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love and Anarchy (1973), and Swept Away (1974) – may not be household names. But it’s hard to think of a more volatile and hypnotic pair than Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato, whose cinematic passion was so often violent, raw, grotesque, and desperate. Seeing these three movies in close proximity is something of a revelation, uncomfortable though it may be to witness their caustic emotions bared onscreen.
In the film that brought writer-director Wertmüller international fame, The Seduction of Mimi, Giannini plays the titular character, a hapless Sicilian who bumbles from one political ideology to the next. He starts off as a poor sulfur miner in a small village who adheres to Communist beliefs only because his friends do. He makes the mistake of voting for a leftist (at the encouragement of his fellow poverty-stricken workers) and not for the patsy candidate propped up by the local capitalist Mob bosses. So Mimi, fired from his job and persecuted by the Mafia, has to abandon his wife and family and hightail it to Turin, where he naively believes “workers are free and respected” and capitalist crooks don’t control everything.
It’s in Turin that he meets Fiore (Melato), a committed leftist who makes a living hawking the sweaters she knits on the side of the road. She’s a more socially conscious character than Mimi (which isn’t saying much) and arguably more nuanced than many of her later characters in Wertmüller films: “I’m nothing just now,” she says. “I have no party… With one group into bombs, another into banning work, we’re all on the Left, but we squabble among ourselves like enemies.” Mimi gawks at her, enraptured and oblivious, and before long he’s declaring his love for her with dialogue that could be seen as sincerely romantic or comedically vacuous: “I think of you dreaming at night, but not of me… All this love I have for you, great, desperate, useless as it is, is only my love and not yours.” So begins their tempestuous romance, based mostly on their perceived political affinities, which are genuine on Fiore’s part and less so on Mimi’s.
The Seduction of Mimi hurtles forward at breakneck speed: Mimi and Fiore have a baby, the entire pregnancy skipped over in the space of one cut; a moment later, Mimi witnesses a Mafia don in Turin gunning down an entire restaurant but chooses to keep his mouth shut, his allegiances veering toward the side of the plutocrats. He receives a promotion at a metal factory as a sign of thanks from his politically-connected bosses, but ironically it’s back in the Sicilian town from which he came, sending him and his new family back to his sexually frigid wife and uber-conservative family (a milieu that Wertmüller enjoys exaggerating and ridiculing).
The political ignorance of modern Italians (as Wertmüller sees it) is constantly mocked by The Seduction of Mimi: people adhere to whatever ideology is fashionable at the time, their lack of convictions ultimately dooming them in the end. The violent chauvinism and hypocrisy of Italian men, obsessed with their own virility, is also lambasted by the film, as Mimi is enraged to find out that his wife Rosalia (Agostina Belli) had an affair and became pregnant while he was away—which is ludicrous since he did exactly the same thing. As always, Wertmüller presents a perplexing and often infuriating set of contradictions: she’s a political leftist but not a feminist, as revealed in the climactic comedic scene in which Mimi tries to have sex with an obese woman, her abundant folds of flesh observed in lingering close-up; Wertmüller leans towards comedy but her subject matter is of the bleakest sort; she is concerned with very pressing real-world issues but favors a preposterous, chaotic tone, influenced in part by her years working with Fellini (she credits her assistant director position on 8½ as a formative experience); her visuals have the dynamism and power of silent cinema, but her dialogue is copious and firecracker-quick, spraying from the mouths of her actors in unbridled frenzy.
Throughout The Seduction of Mimi—even and especially its most problematic moments (like a scene in which Mimi beats his pregnant wife and we’re not sure if it’s meant to be funny)—we have Giannini and Melato. You can’t take your eyes off of them, and their postdubbed dialogue is exhilarating to try to keep up with. The eyes of both Giannini and Melato, the radiant color of translucent jade, are transfixing. His weary face perfectly conveys someone who can barely keep up with the shifting times, and his hair becomes, somehow, marvelously expressive: curly and unkempt in his early scenes as a struggling worker, straightened and slick-back in his scenes as a burgeoning capitalist fat cat, complete with bushy sideburns and manicured mustache. Melato’s pale skin and elegant cheekbones suggest restraint and calm-under-pressure at times, while in other moments she’s furious and vitriolic, presenting her as someone both fragile and unbreakable, thoughtful and mercurial. They play off of each other marvelously; we believe they could fall cataclysmically in love, even though (as they realize by the end) they’re completely different in almost every way. The scene in which Mimi finally breaks down her defenses, proclaiming his love in a decrepit, unheated loft with a portrait of Lenin staring at them in the background, is a wonder to behold.
Love and Anarchy, from a year later, also features Giannini and Melato as would-be leftists caught up in the torrents of history. Admittedly, in this case they’re not romantically involved, but anarchists bent on killing Mussolini in the days leading up to World War II. Giannini is Tunino, an ignorant farmer inspired to join the anarchist cause when his beloved uncle is killed by Mussolini’s fascist forces; Melato is a prostitute named (a little too blatantly) Salomé, whose own lover, a leftist, was killed in Milan by Mussolini’s army. Tunino hides out in Salomé’s brothel in Rome for a few days, given shelter as they plot how to kill the dictator during a demonstration on the city plaza, and it’s during that time that Tunino falls in love with another angelic prostitute, Tripolina (Lina Polito).
In some ways, this is Wertmüller’s most melodramatic movie, given to tropes like the hooker with a heart of gold and the price of political sacrifice. But it may also be her best. The shadowy cobblestone streets and elegantly crumbling buildings of Rome provide marvelous scenery for this story of impending doom and fleeting love in a world unfit for it. There are also some hilarious moments despite the grim political atmosphere, embodied by the absurd character of Spatoletti (Eros Pagni), a despicable fascist (and Mussolini’s security advisor) who spends his time joking about massacring rebels and pinching the ass of any woman he comes across. He’s a furious and hypnotic parody of fascism, as loud and narcissistic as Trump and almost as stupid.
Love and Anarchy, despite its copious and often provocative dialogue, shows Wertmüller’s silent-movie proclivities at their finest; some of the best moments, including a sexually charged stare-down between two characters during an acoustic rendition of a resistance song, contain imagery reminiscent of something like Sunrise (1927). Throughout these three films, Giannini is Wertmüller’s Charlie Chaplin and Melato is her Louise Brooks: the former graceful but in over his head, sad and hilarious, his put-upon toughness a disguise for feeling vulnerable in a difficult world; the latter sexy and steely but hiding something wounded, aware that she’s generally smarter and more capable than the men surrounding her, but also beneath them in the social hierarchy. It’s remarkable to see a writer-director and her two stars so completely on the same precarious wavelength.
As the characters are dwarfed by urban design and architecture in Love and Anarchy, it’s tempting to think of another triumvirate of a director and movie stars in Italian cinema: Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Delon, and Monica Vitti, who in L’eclisse are made inhuman by their insignificance in relation to the constructed, consumerist world around them. But the characters in Wertmüller’s film do remain human, their admirable but destructive ambitions ultimately revealed to be inconsequential in the face of rampaging fascism. That’s largely due to Giannini and Melato, who suggest unspoken depths beneath the movie’s surface storyline: is Salomé jealous of the love between Tunino and Tripolina, and that’s why she urges him to go through with the assassination? Are they both basically nihilistic, knowing that love and sex matter little when death (at either their own hands or those of Mussolini’s goon squads) waits around the corner? There’s more subtlety and ambiguity here than in the other collaborations in this series, and it’s a refreshing change.
By far the most problematic film that Giannini and Melato starred in for Wertmüller is 1974’s Swept Away (with a full title of Swept Away…by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August), though it may also be the most interesting. Melato plays Raffaella, a boorish capitalist who’s enjoying a seaside vacation on the yacht of her wealthy intellectual husband. She’s beautiful, privileged, carefree, outspoken—she makes no attempt to hide her disdain for those socially and economically beneath her. The world is “a shithole full of starving people,” she concludes, and ridicules the inhumanity of Communism, sarcastically saying that Stalin’s concentration camps were “well-run.” (One of her friends says that’s nothing compared to what the U.S. did to Hiroshima.)
Giannini plays a lower-class Sicilian sailor named Gennarino, a deckhand on the yacht. He bristles at her behavior from the start, glowering at her when she complains about the coffee being too cold or the pasta too bland. Things get even worse when he tries to sail her to an isolated island on a small rubber dinghy for a day of sunbathing; inevitably, the boat stalls, they drift at sea for days, and eventually crash ashore on a deserted, edenic island.
Swept Away is nothing less than a titanic clash in a primal setting—not only a clash between man and woman, but between political ideology, capitalism and communism, master and slave, the haves and have-nots. It’s funny and sophisticated, at least for a while: as Gennarino tries to avoid Raffaella on the island, he blurts, “I can’t get away from you. It’s worse than Coca-Cola!” In one of the most fascinating scenes in the movie, Gennarino catches some fish, starts a fire, and prepares a feast for himself; a starving Raffaella gazes at the meal from a distance, and Gennarino forces her to pay for her food, an echo of the capitalist exchange she holds so dear. First, he forces her to pay with money, which is absurd on this island where currency means nothing; second, he forces her to pay a more carnal and emotional price.
This is where the movie gets infuriating: Wertmüller spins the master-slave relationship on its head when Gennarino forces Raffaella to give in to him, and then love him and become obsessed with him, through physical abuse and rape. There’s the unambiguous indication that Raffaella truly wanted this victimization all along and enjoys it (a hugely problematic trope also familiar from Wertmüller’s All Screwed Up). By the end of the film, a truly twisted and codependent passion has been built through violence and subjugation. If Swept Away starts as a comedy, its most representative shot is actually a bleak and silent image of Raffaella staring at black sludge lapping onto the rocky shore—a visual symbol for her self-perception and her view of human nature.
Swept Away is massively powerful and thought-provoking, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. One critic called it “the most outrageously misogynist film ever made by a woman.” There’s more to it than that—the sadomasochism that Wertmüller portrays is political as well as sexual, suggesting that the capitalist elite are not only dependent on the oppressed classes but also secretly desiring their own downfall at their hands—but that doesn’t excuse the simplicity or callousness of the violent rape fantasy that Swept Away espouses. Arguably, though, a problematic film made by a female director about sex, power, oppression, and subjugation should be seen and debated precisely for its nauseating contradictions.
Once again, through it all, there is Melato and Giannini, who give human form to the cerebral ideas and provocations that Wertmüller unleashes. One could call Wertmüller fearless for presenting these radical themes, but the real fearlessness is courtesy of Melato and Giannini, who embody these characters and their extremely skewed states of mind. On this sun-drenched island, their beautiful bodies frequently exposed, their sparkling eyes radiating hatred and desire, the ugliness inside of these characters is indelibly conveyed by Melato and Giannini.
These three films—The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, and Swept Away—are undoubtedly Wertmüller’s creations. When they excel, it’s because of her audacity: her blend of political ideology and sexual power play, of farcical comedy and utterly bleak tragedy, her mix of silent-film elements and mile-a-minute dialogue, her remarkably vivid and mobile camerawork (courtesy of cinematographers such as Dario Di Palma, Giuseppe Rotunno, and others). But when they fail, it’s also due to Wertmüller’s occasional prioritization of idea over character, provocation over sensitivity, and her adoption of some seriously callous depictions of women.
What I’ll remember from these three films are Giannini following Melato around the snowy streets of Turin as a mournful operetta plays on the soundtrack, or Melato and Giannini having one last desperate kiss (in front of his supposed beloved) as he prepares to kill himself for the sake of anarchism, or the two of them lying naked on the beach, feeling twisted and depraved and rabidly in love. These films were brought into the world by Wertmüller but they belong to Giannini and Melato, two overpowering and captivating movie stars that deserve their place in the pantheon of cinema’s greatest tempestuous duos.
Lina Wertmuller’s films continue playing at the Trylon thru September 29. You can purchase tickets for the remaining films; Love & Anarchy, Swept Away and The Seduction of Mimi here.
|Geoffrey Stueven| The Naked City was directed by Jules Dassin, as stated, but its lead creative force is journalist-turned-movie producer Mark Hellinger. His affinity for Weegee’s extraordinary 1945 photo book Naked City animates what could have been a fairly tepid noir. The book Naked City was a freewheeling and feverish glimpse under the veneer of mid-century city life. The Naked City adds a definite article, for a somewhat less definitive translation of the book’s themes. Hellinger is there at the outset, in lieu of opening credits, telling the audience who made the picture, who the stars are, and why we’ve been so suddenly dropped into a helicopter view of New York City: to see the rhythm of life as it’s truly lived, and slowly descend on one of millions of possible stories.
The movie is never more haunting than in the bleak and beautiful views of this opening sequence, which makes an essay of establishing shots and weaves in parts of a story we don’t realize has already started. It also offers a few visions of shocking death that seem indifferent to the Production Code, and most closely channel Weegee’s work (he was involved in creating some of the film’s static shots.)
The Naked City then proceeds as the story of a dead woman who never gets to speak, a device that proves alternately eloquent and frustrating. What might seem like the film’s biggest mistake, the completely phony reactions of friends and lovers to news of the woman’s death, is from a different angle its eeriest evocation of her life’s loneliness and disconnection. Later, the pair of detectives investigating her murder encounter the woman’s parents. When the mother’s angry litany of “I hate her” gives way to inarticulate grief upon seeing the body, the characters’ habits of indifference and victim-blaming are finally given a counterpoint. The film comes closer to the reality of death and the uncharitable reaction of the living than most noirs.
Elsewhere, its points of interest are as varied as the “city of stories” framing suggests. In one astonishing scene, young detective Halloran briefly returns home to nuclear family splendor outside the city, where Mrs. Halloran repeatedly implores him to whip their child for leaving the yard. “Why me?” he asks, in high cheer. End scene. Is there any way to take this, except as the most archly ironic parody of American domesticity ever conceived, whether in film or sketch comedy? Amazing that this scene precedes television, and the laugh track. But in other ways, The Naked City seems quite simple and timid. For a film that considers the full range of human life to be within range of its lens, it is weirdly taken with the idea that playing the harmonica is the greatest possible eccentricity.
The film’s shifting perspective, roving omniscience and grab-bag of ideas likely owes as much to the sometimes awkward fit of Hellinger’s and Dassin’s perspectives as it does to the source material. There seems to be a consensus view that the chase sequence that ends the film, up high above the Williamsburg Bridge, is Dassin showing his hand as a stylist, somewhat at odds with the photorealist ambitions of Hellinger. Funnily, it’s the moment the film finally becomes exciting in a sustained, visceral way.
In the superior Brute Force, a pulpy prison break drama rooted in the inhumanity of the carceral state, the material stands on its own. It’s a better Dassin showcase, too, more noticeably the work of a distinct creative force. Enter Westgate, a perpetually rained-on prison with a population at twice capacity, no opportunities for rehabilitation, and an administration intent on exerting control over the inmates, winding up the “human bomb.” A few of the employees inside are would-be foils to this state of things, but the power-hungry lead guard considers kindness a weakness and enforces his own policies.
As the guard, Hume Cronyn embodies some of the more distressing examples of coded homosexual villainy in classic Hollywood (seeking favors, er, “information,” from an inmate, then dooming him when not reciprocated? check; framed photo of muscled marble bust in well-appointed office? check!), but it’s certainly a terrific and surprising performance. I never imagined Cronyn as a quietly menacing sadist, either.
The film also marks Burt Lancaster’s second screen credit, after The Killers, and it’s odd to see such an obvious leading man still anchoring an ensemble, disappearing for long stretches. Still, the unflinching determination with which he bites into a sandwich (after reading the paper message concealed inside) reveals him as the film’s true star, if any doubt lingers.
The prison break climax leads to an ending so bleak that it plays like a subversion of the Production Code, even as it follows its prescripts. There’s no sense of punishment being meted out by moral authority, just one of tragic miscommunication, hopelessness, and the teeming humanity behind prison walls.
Brute Force and The Naked City play as a double feature all weekend long at the Trylon, buy your tickets here.If you’re interested in checking out Weegee’s photo book, it’s largely out of print except for a reprint available on Amazon. However, it is in circulation in the Hennepin County library system.