A Reliably Forceful Brand
One of the signature tough guys in movie history, Neville Brand (1920-1992), would have turned 97 yesterday. A much-decorated 10-year Army veteran who survived World War II combat, Brand talked to Don Siegel: Director author Stuart M. Kaminsky in the early 1970s about the filmmaker who powerfully showcased him as the brutal leader of a jail revolt in the electric Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954). “Don is like [Sam] Peckinpah. They both dig violence and are two of the least violent guys I’ve ever met. It takes that kind of guy to understand violence. The violent guy doesn’t understand. A man who has killer instinct in him, who has killed a lot of people – I killed a lot of people in the war – doesn’t understand. I’ve worked all my life to channel the violence in me, to keep me out of the penitentiaries, for God’s sake. They pinned medals on me for it during the war and since then I’ve had to channel it. Acting is a perfect channel for me and the role doesn’t have to be violent at all. Just the process, the expression of acting alone is enough. I’ve done a lot of comedy and at the end of the day I’ve been cool. Being in acting has saved my life, no doubt about it.” The future portrayer of Al Capone (in The Untouchables TV series and 1961’s The George Raft Story), Butch Cassidy (in 1958’s Badman’s Country) and Willie Stark (in a Sidney Lumet-directed 1958 TV production of All the King’s Men) was also menacingly effective – in dramatically different ways – for two projects for taskmaster directors Otto Preminger and John Frankenheimer. In 1950, he followed his appearance as a psychopathic hoodlum who crosses paths with Edmond O’Brien in D.O.A. with another small but eye-catching role as the glowering heavy Steve, henchman to Gary Merrill’s erudite mob boss Tommy Scalise, in Preminger’s dark crime thriller Where the Sidewalk Ends. With virtually no dialogue and an impassively lethal mug, he often draws the camera’s attention in the background of group shots with chilling force, and in one memorable scene gives Dana Andrews’ morally compromised antihero police detective a punishing punch-out with stony efficiency, after which he calculatingly stops his boss who wants to finish Andrews off: “Wouldn’t be smart. Put on too much heat for a dead cop.”
Twelve years later, Brand was on the other side of prison bars for one of his most fondly remembered roles as Bull Ransom, the solitary-unit guard to Burt Lancaster’s incarcerated two-time killer in Frankenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). In a movie suffused with the isolation and cruelty of a shut-off world, the gruff-voiced Brand, undeniably capable of restraining force but, as seen through the course of the story, also innate decency toward a fellow “lifer,” is smartly and rewardingly used by Frankenheimer; like an audience surrogate, Bull is often shot gazing intently through the bars at Stroud, reluctantly at first but later reliably extending gestures of human compassion (often unacknowledged or rewarded) that enable the hard case in his charge to transform into a person not just of basic worth but perhaps of inestimable value. As Cinema Sentries reviewer Luigi Bastardo wrote in his evaluation of the film (calling Brand “the film’s true unsung hero…who normally would have found himself being cast as an incarceree”): “Here, Brand sheds the usual bad-guy image he is best known today for...who develops a form of friendship with Lancaster's Stroud as the two grow old together on opposite sides of the cell door. He not only enables Stroud to begin his earliest accomplishments in the field of ornithology, but also encourages the prisoner’s rehabilitation. [The director]…wisely leaves the camera on Brand as he and Lancaster part company after 20 years just long enough to show the stocky tough-guy character actor to tear up for all to see. It's a small, subtle moment in film that has been criminally (pun not entirely intentional) neglected over the years.” It’s also criminally negligent not to experience in 1080p high definition the undeniable impact of gruff-voiced, granite-faced birthday honoree Brand in the early Where the Sidewalk Ends and mid-career Birdman of Alcatraz (offered here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28209/BIRDMAN-OF-ALCATRAZ-1962/) on Twilight Time Blu-ray. Another movie bearing the Brand brand – one of five made during a busy 1953 that started with Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (another prison picture!) – adorns TT’s September lineup. That furious adventure will be covered Wednesday.