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Published Saturday, October 09, 2021
There's no way around the fact that The Brute Man is a cruel movie which wouldn't be made today.
I considered finding some other way to discuss it, but I think really that's the point I need to make here: they don't make ‘em like this anymore, and they were smarter than to make ‘em like this back then, too. Mostly.
It was late and I was in the mood for another old Universal movie, since a lot of them tend to be rather short. I found The Brute Man—58 minutes long and possibly the shortest film I've ever seen classified as a feature. It also had That Guy from Some Like it Hot, which seemed like a good sign. But I was wrong; it wasn't That Guy from Some Like it Hot, it was Rondo Hatton.
Look, this doesn't reflect well on me, but I might as well tell the story anyway. I think That Guy from Some Like it Hot is Harry Wilson, a British actor with a flat, wide nose that made him a good casting choice for gangsters in the mid-'20th century. Guy couldda played a Dick Tracy villain, his facial features are so pronounced. Rondo Hatton, on the other hand, was a journalist who developed acromegaly as an adult. One day some film director noticed his unusual facial features and said "hey, you look like somebody that could be in the movies. Y'wanna be in the movies? C'mon, I'm gonna put you in the movies."
Rondo Hatton and Harry Wilson don't look like each other. I can picture Hatton in Some Like it Hot but he's not in it.
Hatton's film career arguably lasted from 1930 to 1946, but by all accounts it didn't really kick off until 1936 because he wasn't entirely comfortable with his looks being exploited. He went uncredited in most of his films, and that only really changed toward the very end of his career.
Hatton is credited as The Creeper in his last two films, House of Horrors and The Brute Man, both released in 1946, after his death in the same year. I don't know if The Creeper is the same character in both movies, but he may be since Universal was in the habit of reusing characters. Universal also fabricated an explanation for Hatton's appearance: that he'd developed elephantitis after exposure to mustard gas in World War I.
Anyway, I promised you a movie review. The Brute Man is old enough that the credits run first, before the movie. They inform us that Hatton will be playing The Creeper, and in the background we see his shadow inching along, his fingers spread out like talons. The image, obviously supposed to be menacing, was probably ridiculous back in 1946, too. In the opening scenes, The Creeper murders a woman in front of her house and then flees up a fire escape to evade the police. Inside he meets Helen, a blind woman, who understands that he is being pursued by the cops but is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. She helps him to escape back out the window when they begin banging on her door.
The police don't know who The Creeper is, but witnesses have described him as a large man, and hideously disfigured. His crimes are all over the radio and newspapers, and the public are nervoice. The mayor's office is demanding that the police take immediate action on The (as yet unidentified) Creeper or jobs will be lost, which doesn't strike me as a very realistic way to run a police force.
Regardless, the police do eventually find the abandoned waterfront apartment where The Creeper has been squatting. There they find newspaper clippings and a likely suspect begins to emerge: The Creeper may be a man named Hal Moffet. The police go to visit two other people whose pictures appeared in the clippings: married couple Clifford and Virginia Scott The cops lay it all on the table: "we think your friend Hal Moffet may be The Creeper." "Hal?!" they say in disbelief, "that's impossible!"
Reminiscing about their college friend Hal, the Scotts point out that he had a real temper problem and a tendency to fly off the handle. They also reveal that Clifford thwarted Hal's romantic designs on Virginia during their college years, and that Hal's subsequent outburst in the chemistry lab ultimately caused his disfigurement. "We haven't seen him since," they say. "Well, stay out of his line of vision," warns the chief of police, "because I've a feeling you're next."
And he's right, but Hal is distracted by the kindness Helen showed him last night while he was hiding from the fuzz. He decides to woo her the only way he knows how: with jewels stolen from somebody he has murdered.
The story gallops with merciful swiftness. Merciful, because there's an awful lot in here about the ugliness of The Creeper's body must be a direct influence on his mind. This is a movie where the beautiful people are happy and innocent, and the monsters look like monsters, a movie made very much at Rondo Hatton's expense, even to the point of borrowing his own life experiences to flesh out the story of his character.
The critics didn't much like The Brute Man and I didn't either. The story is flimsy and full of too-convenient plot elements and clearly written around Hatton's particular physicality. Everybody seems to have a different idea of what is being exploited in exploitation movies; some people will tell you it's the actors, others will tell you it's the audience, and still others will point to the way the filmmakers squeezed every last drop of value from their resources. Make no mistake, though; The Brute Man was made to exploit one person in particular.