Noirvember Day Five: The Women of Brute Force (1947)
Brute Force was a rare noir set almost entirely inside the walls of a maximum security prison, focusing on a sadistic guard (Hume Cronyn) and a group of cellmates who try to escape his tyranny by carrying out an intricately planned prison break. The cellmates were led by Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) and included Solider (Howard Duff), Tom Lister (Whit Bissell), and Spencer (John Hoyt).
The constantly tormented and dehumanized cellmates find solace primarily in gazing at the picture of a pin-up girl in their cell, which reminds them of the women they left behind. Today’s tribute to Noirvember takes a look at each of these women – although they separately logged no more than five minutes of screen time, collectively they provided the central motivation for most of the action in the film. Each woman is featured in a brief flashback that shows her relationship to the man in her life, and how he wound up in the Greybar Hotel.
Ruth (Ann Blyth)
Ruth, a sweet, sensitive lass, is confined to a wheelchair because of an undisclosed illness. Her boyfriend, Joe, dotes on her, never letting her know that his life of crime is paying for her care. Even when she pointedly asks where he goes when he leaves her, he remains cagey: “Another day, maybe two, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know.” But Ruth’s no dummy – she knows enough to be afraid that he’ll never come back, but her love for him outweighs any suspicions she may have about Joe’s vocation: “I know what I want to know,” she tells him. “The rest doesn’t matter. ”
Gina (Yvonne DeCarlo)
Soldier dreams of returning to the small town in Italy where he met his wife, Gina. We learn that Soldier is the inmate who is least deserving of his imprisonment; during the war, he was hunted down by military police while smuggling food to Gina and her father. “The law is second,” Solider tells her. “My wife comes first.” Apparently, Gina feels the same allegiance to her spouse: when her father refuses to cover for Solider, and attempts to expose him to the military police, Gina shoots and kills him – and Solider takes the blame.
Cora (Ella Raines)
When we first see Cora, we suspect that she’s unhappy with her lot in life, a housewife with a humdrum existence, wed to the mousy, overly devoted Tom Lister. And when she speaks, we’re sure of it. Her husband arrives home after work to find her preparing dinner in a kitchen that’s barely bigger than a closet. “Anything new?” he asks, and Cora dully responds, “Around here?” And her character is further illuminated when Tom proudly presents her with a fur coat. She burrows into it like a kangaroo in its mama’s pouch: “It’s the most beautiful thing in the whole world,” she says breathily. “It makes me feel so, I don’t know – like I was somebody.” And even when Tom reveals that he stole $3,000 from his job to pay for the coat and, at the same time, save his marriage, Cora isn’t fazed: “All my life, the one thing I really wanted was a fur coat. I can’t give it up – I won’t!” Unfortunately for Tom, he doesn’t get to enjoy the benefits of his gift – a knock on the door signals that the jig is up. Sadly, while in prison, Tom learns that Cora is divorcing him, and he hangs himself in his cell.
Flossie (Anita Colby)
Flossie was fondly remembered by Spencer – but not because she was his longtime love; according to Spencer, he’d known her less than a day. He met Flossie in a high-class, but very illegal, gambling establishment in Miami – he’d just sold a sucker some shares in a radium mine, and Flossie was helping him parlay his luck. (“The dice were hot and she kept them that way,” Spencer recalled. “I was heading for a fortune!”). The fun came to an abrupt end when the joint was raided by cops, but Flossie kept her cool and led Spencer to a swift escape – exit, stage left, if you will. She even thoughtfully offered to hide his gun for him, in case he got pinched, and the couple hit the road together in Spencer’s car, with “my money and my gun still safe.” Little did Spencer know, though, that Flossie was not only beautiful, but resourceful as well, as she proved when she pulled Spencer’s own gun on him, forced him to fork over all his cash, ordered him out of his car, and drove off into the sunset. “I wonder who Flossie’s fleecing now,” Spencer mused.
Brute Force is airing Thursday, November 6th on TCM – do yourself a favor and check out the women of this riveting noir. You’ll be glad you did.
Join me tomorrow for Day Six of Noirvember!