David Bordwell on Acting in Brute Force

Before Jules Dassin was blacklisted by Hollywood, and returned to France to make his heist masterpiece Rififi (1955), the director became a master of the film-noir form, starting with his very first crime drama, Brute Force (1947). The prison-break thriller, which pits disgruntled inmates (led by Burt Lancaster) against the sadistic guard Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), is a showcase for a remarkable cast that includes such character actors as Charles Bickford, Whit Bissell, John Hoyt, Howard Duff, and Art Smith, whose work reinforces the film’s mood of cramped intensity. Now streaming on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck, the latest episode of Observations on Film Art features Professor David Bordwell breaking down the fundamental components of screen acting—that most remarked upon, but perhaps least understood, aspect of cinematic technique—using the economically expressive performances of Brute Force as an object lesson. In the above excerpt from the episode, Bordwell discusses the art of performance in relation to everyday human behavior, and examines a scene from Dassin’s film to show how Cronyn and Smith selectively depart from, and adhere to, “realistic” body language.

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