Tales from the Urban Jungle

With the announcement that as the distinction between their catalogues becomes less defined that Arrow is to fold their Academy label into the main body of their portfolio, it is perhaps fitting that one of their final releases exemplifies one of the strands that defined their second range, the double disc boxset titled Tales from the Urban Jungle featuring two classic thrillers directed by Jules Dassin, 1947’s Brute Force and The Naked City of the following year.

Set entirely within the tall walls of Westgate Prison other than brief flashbacks which illuminate the personal misdemeanours of the principal characters and the women they left behind, Brute Force is set on an island accessible only by a single bridge behind solid iron doors and a drawbridge; positioned outside an unnamed city, Richard Brooks’ script was inspired by an incident at Alcatraz the previous year when a failed escape attempt led to rioting.

The facility overcrowded, prisoner Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster, later Oscar nominated when reincarcerated as the Birdman of Alcatraz) shares his cell with five other men; the warden attempting to occupy the men with work to allow them to feel useful and learn skills to support their rehabilitation, but is undermined by his sadistic and manipulative chief of security, Captain Munsey (Cocoon‘s Hume Cronyn delighting in an atypical unsympathetic role).

Billed upon release as containing “the most harrowing violence ever seen in movie theatres,” Brute Force presents a microcosm of a divided state, the prisoners subject to the discipline of a smaller force of guards which can only be enforced so long as their charges cooperate, a tenuous power enforced through fear, while grievances among the inmates are settled with swift reprisal, Munsey’s agent whom he used to place Collins in solitary a disposable tool left dying on the workshop floor.

Every tortured role filled with longing, sometimes dignified, sometimes desperate, Jeff Corey, Whit Bissell and John Hoyt make pre-Star Trek appearances and Charles Bickford is prison newspaper editor Gallagher who works with both sides but crosses neither until Munsey blocks his parole, prompting him to throw in with Collins’ dangerous plan to blast open the gates to freedom, knowing failure will mean he will never be released.

A film tied indelibly with New York and inspired by the work of noted photojournalist Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, The Naked City was written by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald, filmed across over a hundred locations of that bustling city which never rests other than the sleep of the dead, the body of twenty six year old unmarried model Jean Dexter found by her cleaner drowned in the bathtub but with burns around her mouth which indicate she had been subdued with chloroform by parties unknown.

Almost documentary in its approach and set amongst iconic architecture, the tall buildings stealing the sunshine of those in the trenches, Barry Fitzgerald leads the investigation as Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon but despite the conscious absence of overt style, the focus always on the mundane process of tracking evidence, finding connections and eliminating possibilities to identify a suspect, every moment of The Naked City is filled with character and performance beyond the sparse script.

Balanced between tragedy and irony, the murder is not solved by luck or an easy break but by the dedicated determination and process of the police force, much of it legwork as they interview witnesses and follow up apparently tangential leads to a cross-section of the population, from society families to working dames and down-on-their-luck hucksters, every part played as though it were a lead rather than a supporting role.

Both films largely devoid of sentimentality – Dassin apparently objected to Brute Force’s flashbacks of starlets Anita Colby, Ella Raines, Ann Blyth and The Munsters’ Yvonne De Carlo as the ladies lurking in the memories of the men but was overruled by the studio – they are magnificently presented in new restorations pieced together from multiple sources, so degraded were the original negatives, the dialogue clear, the monochrome images of cinematographer William H Daniels crisp and Miklós Rózsa’s scores sharp.

As would be expected of Arrow, both Tales from the Urban Jungle feature commentaries, that of The Naked Jungle ambitious in its unusual format, video essays on the background and production of the films, a piece on Burt Lancaster by his biographer Kate Buford filled with movie industry insight and anecdotes, a very personal appreciation of Brute Force by Josh Olson, an archive in-person event with Jules Dassin, an appraisal of New York’s presence across studio, independent and underground film by Amy Taubin and a short documentary on “the Hollywood ten” imprisoned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, among them Albert Maltz.

Tales from the Urban Jungle is available on Blu-ray from Monday 12th April



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