DVD Review: Brute Force

The Criterion Collection
Movie •••• Picture •••• Sound •••½ Extras ••••
The classic film-noir era of the 1940s and '50s is hardly known for prison-break pictures. But director Jules Dassin (Naked City) more than makes up for this with his endlessly stylish Brute Force (1947). With the help of master Hollywood cinematographer William Daniels, he frames and composes almost every shot as if creating fine-art still photography, placing special emphasis on young star Burt Lancaster and the rest of the stellar cast.

Seldom has a DVD made such a striking statement with a vintage black-and-white film. The pristine, artifact-free picture makes this 60-year-old film look brand new. As is customary for Criterion, its rich and detailed transfer is true enough to the source to include original film grain; there's no artificial digital sheen here at all. The soundtrack is crisp and clean, even if the Dolby Digital mono inevitably calls more attention to the movie's age than the visuals do.

Film historians and noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini devote their commentary to placing the movie squarely in the film noir tradition, subject matter notwithstanding. Their talk is maybe a little too broad - they clearly know the minutiae of Hollywood history, and they're not shy about sharing it - but their tangents give the chat a nice freewheeling air. In a 16-minute filmed interview illustrated with clips, criminologist Paul Mason offers a brief decade-by-decade history of the prison-movie genre, echoing the film's anti-authoritarian stance with an emphasis on the need for reform. A beautiful 36-page booklet has two probing essays, stills from the movie, and a heated and revealing written exchange between producer Mark Hellinger and Production Code chief Joseph Breen regarding censorship of the film. [NR] English, Dolby Digital mono; full frame (1.33:1); dual layer.

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