Classic Movies · Where's That Been?

Where’s That Been? – Big House, U.S.A. (1955)

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The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?”  Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here.  Enjoy!

Petty blackmailer Jerry Barker (Ralph Meeker) takes advantage of the disappearance of young Danny Lambert (Peter J. Votrian) from a summer camp to try and extort a ransom of $200,000 from Danny’s concerned father (Willis Bouchey). Barker stashes the kid in an undisclosed location (a condemned fire tower in Colorado’s Royal Gorge National Park) and sends the senior Lambert instructions on where to deliver the payoff. But Barker hadn’t counted on Danny falling to his death shortly after the ransom’s been paid…so he chucks the youngster’s corpse into a gorge and makes tracks for the park’s exit. Unfortunately for him, a team of investigators comprised of Chief Ranger Will Erickson (Roy Roberts) and FBI Agent James Madden (Reed Hadley) start lobbing questions at Barker after he’s stopped at a park checkpoint, and Jerry’s complicity in the kidnapping becomes all too evident.

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Broderwick Crawford, William Tallman, Charles Bronson, and Lon Chaney, Jr. in Big House, U.S.A. (1955)

Erickson and Madden have no luck in locating Danny’s remains, which means all they have on Barker is an extortion rap, and he’s sent to Cascabel Island Prison (“Cascabel” is Spanish slang for “rattlesnake”) where, in the words of the warden (Stafford Repp), he is to be stationed with “the wormy aristocracy.” Barker’s fellow cellmates include neophyte Benny Kelly (Charles Bronson), mad dog killer William “Machine Gun” Mason (William Talman), narcotics smuggler “Alamo” Smith (Lon Chaney, Jr.), and their ringleader, bank heist mastermind Rollo Lamar (Broderick Crawford). Despite Barker’s status as a pariah (inmates whose crimes involve children are considered the lowest of the low), Rollo decides to buddy up to the new fish because he’s anxious to get his sweaty paws on the hidden $200,000…and he’s got a plan to bust out of Cascabel to achieve that goal.

Before becoming an executive producer on many of Frank Sinatra’s feature films (The Manchurian Candidate, 4 for Texas, Robin and the 7 Hoods) and later such big box-office smashes as The Odd Couple (1968) and Airplane! (1980), director Howard W. Koch (not the co-scribe on Casablanca, by the way—that’s Howard Koch sans the “W”) specialized in cheap, profitable drive-in fare (much of it featuring Mamie Van Doren): The Girl in Black Stockings (1957), Untamed Youth (1957), Born Reckless (1958), etc. It’s a shame Koch decided his talents were better appreciated on the production side of the movie business because several of his directorial efforts are actually pretty good. His debut, Shield for Murder (1954; co-directed with star Edmond O’Brien), isn’t available on DVD as of this writing but it’s a neat and nasty little noir worth catching the next time it turns up on Turner Classic Movies.

Koch’s second effort, Big House, U.S.A. (1955), is far from your run-of-the-mill prison flick: it intertwines two absorbing plots, Barker’s failed kidnapping attempt and his subsequent trip to the slammer. The kidnapping section is where most of the nail-biting thrills are evident, particularly since Barker’s plan to ransom young Danny comes completely out of the blue (he’s initially presented as an Average Joe visiting the park to get in some fishing). What’s more, the investigation doesn’t come to a halt once Jerry’s sent to Cascabel; Madden (Racket Squad actor Hadley narrates the film from this point, something that was his specialty in classic noirs like The House on 92nd Street and Boomerang!) digs around and learns camp nurse Emily Evans was also involved in the snatching of Master Lambert. Emily is played by actress Felicia Farr (billed as Randy Farr) in her film debut; Farr would later appear in such films as Jubal (1956) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957), but might be better known off-screen as Mrs. Jack Lemmon.

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Crawford, Ralph Meeker, Tallman, and Bronson

The fast-moving momentum of Big House slows a bit once Barker is in stir, but this is compensated by the first-rate casting of the individuals who serve as Jerry’s roommates. Broderick Crawford nabbed an Oscar for All the King’s Men (1949), but he also was adding a lot of screen villainy to his cinematic resume playing heavies in the likes of Scandal Sheet (1952) and New York Confidential (1955). William Talman, two years away from his small screen career as a D.A. who lost to Perry Mason practically every week, had notched memorable bad guy turns in Armored Car Robbery (1950), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), and City That Never Sleeps (1953). Charles Bronson was just paying his dues on his way to becoming an international movie superstar (The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen), and part of his dedicated work in the trenches could be found in menacing parts like those in House of Wax (1953) and Crime Wave (1954).

By this time in his career, Lon Chaney, Jr. was continuing to demonstrate a versatility between essaying good and bad guy roles (he’d work with Howard W. again in the Koch-produced The Black Sleep [1956]) while also revealing a commitment to professionalism despite a fondness for the bottle. Both Lon and Brod Crawford struggled with alcoholism throughout their show business careers, and in the Don G. Smith-penned biography Lon Chaney, Jr.: Horror Film Star, director Koch noted that “Creighton” was a bit better at concealing his tippling. (“Some actors drink because it gives them courage,” Koch was quoted as saying.) The dauntless duo of Chaney and Crawford had squared off against one another in the earlier North to the Klondike (1942), though any hopes Lon, Jr. will prevail in the Big House re-match will be dashed (I’ll keep mum about it, but it’s a particularly grisly demise).

posterLike his incarcerated co-stars, Ralph Meeker also walked a fine line between heroics and villainy: he had played memorable no-goods in Jeopardy (1953) and The Naked Spur (1953), and in the film following Big House, U.S.A. he would take on the iconic role of Mickey Spillane creation Mike Hammer in the cult classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Jerry Barker is an extraordinary role for Meeker; his Barker earns the nickname “the Ice Man” for his stone face and cool demeanor during his trial for extortion, but it could just as easily apply to his lack of empathy for his young kidnap victim.

Newly available on Blu-ray from Kino, the docudrama feel of Big House comes courtesy of screenwriter John C. Higgins (with story by George W. George and George F. Slavin), best known for his written contributions to many of Anthony Mann’s early film noirs, including Railroaded! (1947) and He Walked by Night (1948). It’s not a perfect film by any means (there’s a logic loophole or two), but it’s so fast-moving in the “B” picture tradition you probably won’t notice until after the closing credits roll. Special kudos go out to Gordon Avil, whose striking black-and-white cinematography is also a highlight, capturing the breathtaking scenery of Colorado’s Royal Gorge National Park (and surrounding Canon City).

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