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Big House, U.S.A. (Blu-ray Review)

17 Aug, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Broderick Crawford, Ralph Meeker, Reed Hadley, William Talman.

Thanks to the AFI Catalog for the 1950s, I see that in 1956, Washington’s Senate Juvenile Delinquency Sub-Committee singled out Big House, U.S.A. as “‘a picture having too much emphasis on violence and crime,’ thereby negatively influencing younger viewers.” You can thus can call me “Exhibit A”; even though I didn’t catch this unusually brutal-for-its-day toughie when it played in theaters, I was able to see it on TV in 1960 or ’61 when a lot of ’50s United Artists product received what were then extraordinarily early broadcast releases (Robert Aldrich’s unique and also stark raving mad Kiss Me Deadly was being piped into my home and moviegoing consciousness by then as well).

As prison pictures go, you can’t say the Big House casting is off the mark, given that a single cell holds Broderick Crawford, Ralph Meeker, a pre-“Perry Mason” William Talman, Lon Chaney Jr. and a strikingly muscular Charles Bronson, whose character must have been spending a lot of time in the weight room (certainly more than Crawford and Chaney). But structurally, this “B” is something of an odd bird because (given the title), it isn’t even a prison story until maybe a third of the way in. The early going deals with the botched kidnapping scheme that thrusts Meeker into that cellblock company of such pretty faces, and is it ever mean. The asthmatic son who’s abducted from a summer camp isn’t physically up to facing the Colorado elements, and he falls fatally out of the condemned fire station tower where he’s been left, trying to escape. Without a whole lot of options, Meeker tosses the kid’s corpse off a mountain as if it were an empty bottle of Johnnie Walker — an image I have never forgotten and one that packs a pretty horrific punch even now.

All this happens fairly early in the story, so we’re only in borderline spoiler territory; at this point, an FBI guy played almost predictably by Reed Hadley shows up to turn some of the narrative into a Bureau procedural. (By the way, seeing a picture of J. Edgar Hoover on an office wall here elicits the same kind of automatic laugh as pictures of Nixon do in any movie made after, say, 1960.) Hadley, with a great voice, always had these investigatory roles nailed, having starred on TV in “Racket Squad” and “Public Defender” — two more favorites from a childhood when I was reading so many bios from the library on John Dillinger, Alvin Karpis, Ma Barker, Baby Face Nelson and Machine Gun Kelly that my third grade teacher called me out on it in front of the class.

Hadley’s almost obligatory narration isn’t a plus; it’s one of those dated voiceovers that began with 20th Century-Fox’s pseudo-documentary postwar crime dramas but doesn’t really detract from the hard-ass material at hand. We even sense early on, by the way she’s photographed, that the kindly camp nurse at the camp who’s fond of the about-to-be victim has something about her that isn’t quite right. Cast in the role is a blonde Felicia Farr in her feature debut, back when she was briefly billed as Randy Farr. Perhaps she realized that this was an apt career move because juxtaposed against some of the mugs in this picture, her looks were bound to make an impression.

The malevolence continues once Meeker ends up in the pokey on an extortion charge and not kidnapping (because no one can find the corpse that would tie him to the more insidious act). He is automatically unpopular because creeps who do bad things to kids are particular pariahs in prison, but his nemesis No. 1 is probably Crawford. Whenever some fellow inmate gets in his way, Brod has a way of turning him into an expendable — or, at least doesn’t shed too many tears when, for instance, a con colleague and presumed buddy gets fried by steam because he was in the wrong place in the pokey at the wrong time. More brutality.

After Crawford won a kind of left-field Oscar for All the King’s Men and then followed it immediately with the hit screen version of Born Yesterday, the well got kind of empty when it quickly became clear that you couldn’t cast him conventionally in regular leading-guy roles. Soon, he was on a quick toboggan ride to B-movies and TV’s “Highway Patrol” (where he barked “10-4” a half-dozen times a show). There’s a funny footnote here: One of my lifelong best friends was the son of Ohio’s onetime Highway Patrol chief — who had in his possession a hand-scrawled multi-page letter from an elderly viewer lauding the way Crawford had solved one particular case and retracing, in step-by-step fashion, just how he’d done it. She actually said that he was a “credit to the force.”

Once the story gets into the prison, the movie becomes a little more conventional, but I still really like the outdoor set-up scenes and the low-angle way Meeker is photographed: really creepy stuff. In a manner that Leonard Kastle’s 1970 The Honeymoon Killers replicated with all-out perfection years later, this United Artists obscurity (its first “Bel-Air Production”) still gives me a little of the feeling I got reading copies of the tabloid-ish Police Gazette when they were still regularly stacked in piles at my barber shop around the very time this movie came out.

Big House also brings back memories of a show called “Wanted” that got under my 7-year-old skin at most exactly the same time — a kind of "America’s Most Wanted" weekly documentary of its day (with eerie theme music) that CBS aired for a few weeks late in ’55. Its hook was sending a crew to trailer parks, shops and the like to interview associates of or witnesses to felons on the loose. “The Mickey Mouse Club” premiered on TV the very same month — and for me, at least (though certainly for no one else), it didn’t stand a chance. 

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