After making three critical and commercial hits in a row (and while in the process of making his fourth) thirty-nine-year-old Jules Dassin suddenly found his career cut short. Placed on the Hollywood blacklist in 1950 due to past communist leanings, the talented young director suddenly found himself a pariah in an industry where he had previously been experiencing a meteoric rise. Banned from entering studio property (he was not even allowed to edit his latest film, the London set Night and the City) he found himself cut adrift. Forced to move to Europe in order to continue making movies, it was a whole five years before Dassin released another film, 1955’s Rififi. Although that turned out to be arguably his greatest work, Dassin never was able to re-ignite his Hollywood career, even after the witch hunts of H.U.A.C. and McCarthyism had passed. Yet the four films he did manage to make during the brief period of time between 1947 and 1950 are generally regarded as some of the greatest Noirs ever committed to celluloid.

Two of them, 1947’s Brute Force and 1948’s The Naked City are collected here in a new box set from Arrow entitled Tales from the Urban Jungle. Previously released as two separate Blu Ray editions in 2014, Arrow have sourced new 4K restored masters for both films and have included an array of new extras for their 2021 boxset.

Both films are simple tales strikingly told. One is a thrilling prison set drama that pushed the boundaries of cinematic violence and helped launch several Hollywood careers; the other is far less bombastic in it’s telling, but was shot and told in such a way as to having a lasting influence that can still be seen and felt to this day.

Brute Force

Director: Jules Dassin
Screenplay: Richard Brooks (based on a story by Robert Patterson)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford
Year: 1947
Duration: 98 min
Country: US
BBFC Certification: 12

The earlier, arguably more conventional film, is Brute Force. The first film Dassin made after breaking free from his contract at MGM (where he had made unremarkable comedies and war pictures, films he later disowned) it at once bristles with the creative energy of an emancipated director while adhering to the darker, introspective mode of film-making that emerged in the years following the Second World War. Starring a young Burt Lancaster (in only his second key role after The Killers) as Joe Collins, the film tells the story of the inmates of cell R-17 at Westgate Penitentiary and their attempt to break out…so not the most original of stories then. Brute Force, however, is able to elevate itself above its basic plot thanks to a couple of stand out performances, a tight, efficient script, a phenomenal villain and, perhaps most importantly, a level of violence that greatly shocked audiences back in the 1940s and that still has the power to elicit a strong reaction today.

The film begins calmly enough, albeit with an air of brooding tension. We are introduced to Lancaster and his cellmates, along with Captain Munsey, a sadistic guard who covets the role of Prison Governor. A sense of claustrophobia and paranoia hangs over these opening scenes as Dassin gradually reveals the wider prison population and the hierarchies that govern them, until the carefully wrought tension overspills into a shocking murder in a prison workshop. It is at this moment that Brute Force reveals itself to be a darker, more brutal film that what contemporary audiences might have expected.

Yet the film plays with its moments of violence (both physical and psychological) sparingly, spending as much time setting up its characters and the logistics of a prison breakout as it does on guns, torture and murder. Thanks to screenwriter Richard Brooks, these quieter, more reflective moments never drag, with an ever-present tension slowly building as the characters and plot are developed. One of the most contentious decisions in the film was in its use of flashbacks, which are utilised to provide some background on the inmates of cell R-17. Dassin strongly disapproved of them, arguing that they ruined the pace and tension. Producer Mark Hellinger insisted on keeping them in, mainly to ensure that the film had enough female characters (played by up and coming female stars) in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Despite the motivation behind their inclusion, I feel that they successfully work in fleshing out Joe Collins and his cellmates, offering interesting and often tragic backstories while being brief enough to ensure that the film’s tension is never derailed. It is telling, however, that the film’s most memorable character is afforded no back story at all.

While this is ostensibly Burt Lancaster’s film (and his performance of brooding, violent masculinity was enough to cement his screen presence as a tough guy for the next decade until he cannily decided to play against type) it is Hume Cronyn’s Captain Munsey that leaves a lasting impression. Typically playing mild-mannered characters up until this point, Cronyn’s physical appearance is certainly ineffectual; he looks more like an accountant that a prison guard able to corral hardened prisoners. Yet Munsey turns out to be a repugnantly evil opportunist, whose manipulative cruelty more than makes up for his lacking of physical stature (his cruelty, coupled with his unsubtle love of Wagner, means it isn’t hard to read  Munsey as an echo of Nazism). Cronyn takes all these dark ingredients and manages to deliver a performance that not only makes Munsey the most memorable character in the film but ensures that this sadistic prison guard takes his place among noir’s, perhaps even cinema’s, greatest villains. Needless to say, anyone who only knows Cronyn for playing sweet old men (such as in Batteries Not Included) will be shocked.

For most of its running time, as the prisoners plot and plan to escape, Brute Force is an effective prison drama, peppered with moments of sudden, surprising violence. Yet its final fifteen minutes elevate it into one of the most thrillingly powerful prison films ever made. Still brutally effective more than seventy years after it was made, the film’s climactic battle is a jaw-dropping set piece of action and violence, made all the more powerful by the powder keg of tension that precedes it. I don’t want to say too much more without ruining it for those who haven’t experienced it, but the fact that no stuntmen were used and a few actors actually suffered burns during the filming should give some indication of the visceral power Dassin manages to capture on-screen.

Yet, for all its effectiveness and brilliance, Brute Force never tries to be anything more than a Hollywood drama. Beyond an audience bating depiction of violence and brutality, narratively and aesthetically it doesn’t really offer anything new, adhering to common Nourish tropes of fate and pessimism. Yet if Brute Force rocked the boat, it was Dassin’s next film that would blow it out of the water.

The Naked City

Director: Jules Dassin
Screenplay: Albert Maltz & Malvin Ward
Starring: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Ted de Corsia
Year: 1948
Duration: 96 min
Country: US
BBFC Certification: PG

The Naked City, quite simply, breaks all the rules. On the surface it is a typical Film Noir. A beautiful model, Jean Dexter, is found murdered in her apartment. As the police are called in to investigate,  they uncover a tale of lust, greed and murder. Yet the film’s opening moments, with helicopter shots of New York voiced over by the Producer (Hellinger again, who sadly wouldn’t live to see the film’s premiere) it is clear that this is a film aiming to do things a little differently. While it is most famous for being shot almost entirely on real locations around New York, it is the film’s depiction of a murder investigation that has had a far greater influence, spawning its very own genre – the Police Procedural. Dragnet, CSI, The Wire…they all owe their debt to The Naked City (including Naked City, the film’s very own spin-off TV show, which premiered ten years later!).

Before The Naked City, cops in movies were more akin to Private Eyes, seemingly working alone and almost always with an air of anti-authoritarian charm. Yet after a typically Noirish opening scene (a glamorous woman being murdered in her bedroom), The Naked City focuses not on the villains or the lone cop who brings them down but on the department of cops who manage to solve the case, headed by the decidedly unglamorous Lt. Muldoon. Almost unheard of for the time, the film follows ordinary-looking policemen completing dull, exhausting legwork, where crimes are solved not by serendipity or melodramatic confessions but by a component, focused investigation. Seemingly normal now, it must have felt revelatory for contemporary audiences.

But of course, this is not the only area in which The Naked City broke new ground. While it wasn’t the first film to shoot in real New York locations (House on 92nd Street was one of the films that did it first) it was certainly the film that used those locations most effectively. Viewed today, The Naked City is not so much a movie as a time capsule, transporting you back to late 1940s New York. Dassin used inventive methods to capture his scenes on the street, such as hiding his cameras in moving vans and disguising them behind fake newsstands. For a film as determined as The Naked City is to present an air of documentary authenticity (from its narrative to its aesthetic) these street scenes add an immeasurable air of legitimacy to the rather conventional narrative. This authenticity isn’t just confined to the street scenes either; real interiors were also used as much as possible, including the city’s morgue.

Due to the unique creative desires that drove the film, the plot of The Naked City isn’t much to write home about. Yet it is meant to be an ordinary tale, just one out of the millions that took place every day. That does not mean, however, that the film is only remarkable for its location shooting or interest in authentic police procedure. Thanks to a pacy script and light, humorous performances (especially Barry Fitzgerald’s Lt. Muldoon) the film is consistently entertaining. If the eventual revelations are rather anti-climatic, Dassin more than makes up for it by ending his film, like Brute Force before it, with an absolutely thrilling climax. Whereas Brute Force saw the resolution of its previous clockwork tension spill out in genre-defining violence, The Naked City ends in a heart-thumping chase sequence that utilises its documentary aesthetic to heighten and create moments that are never less then exhilaratingly cinematic. In fact, that just about sums up the entire film.

With one film set in a busy metropolis, the other set in a very different kind of city, both of these movies certainly are tales of Urban Jungles. Watching them today, despite the revolutionary techniques The Naked City brought to Hollywood genre film making, Brute Force holds up as the better movie due to its gripping plot, more memorable characters and powerful moments; the novelty of the Naked City’s stark originality has dulled slightly with time, leaving it with a plot that was by design meant to be functional rather than fantastic. Yet what both films unmistakably prove was that Jules Dassin was a director to be reckoned with. Despite the brilliance of his later Rififi, who knows what further Noirish brilliance he would have conjured up in Hollywood if time and circumstance hadn’t conspired against him. What Arrow’s box set does is celebrate two seminal works from an astounding director who almost certainly would have become far better known if his career hadn’t been so brutally cut short.

 

As mentioned, Arrow have sourced new 4K restorations of both films for their new Blu Ray boxset and I have to say, they look magnificent. Despite not having access to the original camera negatives (which were lost or destroyed years ago) each film looks pin-sharp with beautiful detail and contrast throughout. Comparing each film to their 2014 editions, Brute Force sees a decent upgrade but it is The Naked City that comes across as a revelation. Whereas the older master showed quite a bit of print damage, the new master is almost faultless and looks absolutely pristine. Both films also show a lot more stability as well. It is worth noting that the sound for both films has also been beautifully restored. Again, it is The Naked City that sees the most significant upgrade here, with the dialogue now coming through wonderfully clear compared to a slight dullness on the older release. This is especially important for The Naked City, considering how the live location sound had slightly less clarity than the dry quality usually associated with studio sound recordings.

There are plenty of extras for both discs. Arrow have only lost one extra from the previous release of The Naked City (screenwriter  Malvin Wald’s commentary) which I presume must have been down to a rights issue. Brute Force sees a good amount of new bonus material compared to the previous release. The extras for Brute Force are as follows:

  • Brand new commentary by historian and critic Josh Nelson
  • Nothing’s Okay, a brand new visual essay by film historians David Cairns & Fiona Watson
  • Josh Olson: Brute Force, a personal appreciation by the Academy Award winning screenwriter of A History of Violence
  • Burt Lancaster: The Film Noir Years, an in-depth look at Burt Lancaster’s early career by Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life
  • Theatrical Trailers
  • Image Gallery

Commentary by Josh Nelson: Australian film critic Josh Nelson provides an in depth analysis of Brute Force, focusing on the film’s themes of masculinity and violence, as well as an analysis on the Noir genre as a whole. While he provides some very interesting information on the film and it’s actors, this is very much an academic commentary, which at times becomes a bit too dry and overly analytical. Your milage and enjoyment of it will surely vary from mine, however, and it is certainly worth a listen.

Nothing’s Okay: Much in the same vein as the commentary, but a bit lighter in delivery, this is a brief but interesting alternative look at the film from David Cairns and Fiona Watson. Each take turns in discussing various aspects of the film and its production against a backdrop of film clips and poster stills.

Josh Olson on Brute Force: Self shot during lockdown, this is a very short but affectionate appreciation of the film by the screenwriter of A History of Violence (you may also be familiar with him as the co-host of the Movies that Made Me podcast with Joe Dante) whose love for the film actually stemmed from his grandmother, who was a huge fan!

Burt Lancaster: The Film Noir Years: This is the same extra that appeared on Arrow’s previous release of Brute Force. This is a really great piece that explores Lancaster’s early career and work (up until the early sixties). Lancaster biographer Kate Burford explores his background as a circus gymnast, his break into movies, then his subsequent move into making his own movies through his own production company. Coming in at just under 40 minutes, Burford is constantly engaging and provides a wealth of info on the legendary actor. An essential watch if you want to brush up on your Burt Lancaster knowledge!

The package is rounded out with contemporary trailers (for The Naked City and Rififi as well as Brute Force) and a stills gallery, which contains some fabulous candid on set shots alongside the usual production stills.

The Naked City disc also contains a great amount of additional material (a few of which have been ported over from the previous release). They are as follows:

DISC TWO – THE NAKED CITY

  • Naked City Radio, a unique new audio commentary by historian and critic David Cairns featuring actors Steven McNicoll and Francesca Dymond
  • The Pulse of the City, a brand new visual essay by historian and critic Eloise Ross
  • New York and The Naked City, a personalised history of NYC on the big screen by critic Amy Taubin
  • The Hollywood Ten, a 1950 documentary short on the ten filmmakers blacklisted from Hollywood for their refusal to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, including The Naked City’s screenwriter Albert Maltz
  • Gallery of production stills by photojournalist Weegee
  • Theatrical Trailer

Naked City Radio: This rather gimmicky commentary is hosted by David Cairns with contributions from actors  Steven McNicoll and Francesca Diamond. It combines Cairns’ analysis of the film with performed sections from the actors. For example, if Cairns mentions a scene that was deleted from the film, a radio dial sound effect transitions us from Cairns into the actors performing that scene. As time goes on, original audio clips from other films are also used to illustrate the commentary (at least I think they were original audio clips and not the actors performing them). While fun to start with, by the end the constant ‘dialling’ into another clip does becomes rather wearying. Nevertheless, Cairns is an excellent host and provides a wealth of detail on the film and kudos to Arrow for trying something different with a commentary, even if it isn’t always successful.  

The Pulse of the City: Critic Eloise Ross provides her own critical appraisal of The Naked City, illustrated by clips and stills. Despite having just listened to Cairns commentary, this manages to provide interesting further analysis on the film. 

New York and The Naked City: Critic Amy Taubin provides a history of New York on film from the very early days of the silents, all the way up to the present day. Taubin is an engaging host and keeps your attention for the whole forty minute or so running time. She goes into detail about New York beginning to be used as a proper filming location in from the 40s onwards, the rise of avant-garde, experimental and independent films in the late 50s and 60s, as well as how the city is used as a location today. Moving from Dassin to Cassavetes, Warhol to Scorsese, this is a great addition to the disc and absolutely worth a watch.

The Hollywood Ten: This is a short film from 1950 made to support and give voice to the industry figures who had been blacklisted (including one of The Naked City’s screenwriters, Albert Maltz). Although its editing and pace severely date it, this is still an interesting historical document and noteworthy for the fact that the actual Hollywood Ten are the ones addressing the camera most of the time.

Like Brute Force, the package is rounded up with the same trailers and a stills gallery from famed New York photographer Weegee (the film actually took its name from Weegee’s photography book and, as a favour in return, he was hired as the film’s stills photographer). His production stills and behind the scenes shots are, surprise surprise, fantastic. 

The boxset also comes with a booklet which I unfortunately did not get to see at the time of the review.

Overall this is a brilliant release. If you don’t own either film, then you should definitely add this to your collection – you are getting beautiful new 4K remasters of two of the best films from Noir master Jules Dassin. For those who already own Arrow’s previous editions…if you are a huge Dassin or Noir fan, then I think the new 4K remasters (especially on The Naked City) coupled with the new extras on Brute Force make this a worthy upgrade.  

 

 

Tales from the Urban Jungle
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