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BIG HOUSE U.S.A. – The DVD Review

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“I’m gonna kidnap a kidnapper for the money he kidnapped for.”

Ever lie in bed at night and wonder if an old movie exists where Lon Chaney takes a blowtorch to Charles Bronson’s face? Well it does and it’s the 1955 prison drama BIG HOUSE U.S.A., a gritty but forgotten crime tale about a desperate group of loathsome men played by an amazing cast of manly B-movie bad guys. Chaney and Bronson act alongside Broderick Crawford, Ralph Meeker, and William Talman. They’re all villains who meet cruel but deserved ends in BIG HOUSE U.S.A., one of the most mean-spirited prison escape/kidnap caper thriller ever made (and I mean that as a good thing). I saw it on TV when I was very young and its vicious violence stayed with me for decades until I was finally able to see it again thanks to MGM’s ‘On Demand’ Classics Collection.

BIG HOUSE U.S.A.’s story begins with an asthmatic rich kid getting lost while attending a ‘mountain ranger’ summer camp (locations filmed at Colorado’s Royal Gorge Park). Shady hiker Jerry Barker (Ralph Meeker) discovers the boy and pretends to help him, but really has decided to hold him for a half million dollar ransom and locks him in a forest lookout tower. The kid tries to escape but falls from the tower to his death. Barker hides the body, retrieves the ransom money, and tries to flee the area. Caught, he’s only convicted of extortion since it can’t be proven he had anything to do with the boy’s disappearance. BIG HOUSE U.S.A. switches gears at this point and settles for a while into a standard prison story, focusing on four hard-as-nails convicts that Barker is thrown into the slammer with; Rollo Lamar (Broderick Crawford), Machinegun Mason (William Tallman), Alamo Smith (Lon Chaney), and Benny Kelly (Charles Bronson). A breakout is planned with their target being the hidden ransom money. The escape is a success and with the Feds and park rangers soon on their tail, the gang begins to turn on each other. Mistrust, double-crosses and grisly murders ensue.

With its superb low-budget production BIG HOUSE U.S.A. is a brutal fast-paced film that deserves to be rediscovered. Divided into three distinct chapters, the opening kidnap section is presented in a Dragnet pseudo-documentary style. There is a lot of narration in this first half hour, much of it pointless to the story. Once Barker is in the clink, the narration ends, the look and tone of the film changes and BIG HOUSE U.S.A becomes a rough and tumble prison noir. The moody black-and-white photography perfectly captures the dank confines of the individual cells (five men to each!). The old-time jailhouse movie is by definition an exercise in nostalgia and the middle section of BIG HOUSE U.S.A. gives us the genuine article, a sweaty, tense tale from inside the big house. Casabel Island Prison comes off as a hotbox of violence and there are some grisly scenes in this portion of the movie, including one where a prisoner is scalded to death in a boiler. After the escape, the setting switches back to the sunny mountain terrain for a chase climax not as atmospheric as the prison stuff but exciting and violent nonetheless.

BIG HOUSE U.S.A. is filled with images of extreme violence (especially for 1955). The only sympathetic character is the kidnapped child and he is killed off at the 15 minute mark (curiously, he’s never mentioned again and his grieving father disappears from the story as well). The police are kept mostly off-screen throughout so the main characters depicted are completely immoral, a device that works here because of its powerhouse cast. Ralph Meeker played hard as Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s cult item KISS ME DEADLY the same year and his sneering Barker is the type of villain an audience loves to hate. Broderick Crawford delivers a snarling, over-the-top performance as the ringleader of the escapees. Crawford had won an Oscar six years earlier for ALL THE KINGS MEN and at this time was star of the popular TV show Highway Patrol. It’s rumored that Crawford was such a serious drunk that he sometimes had to deliver his lines lying down on a painted backdrop with the camera pointed straight down at him because he couldn’t stand up. One of his drinking buds at the time was BIG HOUSE U.S.A costar Lon Chaney, who delivers a mean bully performance, and it must have been an interesting shoot with these two boozers on the set. William Talman was a tall burly character actor memorable as the killer in the 1953 noir classic THE HITCH-HIKER but is best known for his role as Hamilton Burger, the district attorney who perpetually lost to Perry Mason in the long-running series Perry Mason. But the scene-stealer in BIG HOUSE U.S.A. is 34-year-old Charles Bronson in one of the first in a career of physical performances. Bronson’s Benny is a coiled, short-fused psycho, unlike the laconic laid-back persona he developed when he became the world’s biggest star almost twenty years later. His muscular physique must have been startling to 1955 audiences and in a movie populated with bruisers, Bronson comes off as the toughest.

Most critics at the time took notice of the film’s sadism. The U.K.’s Monthly Film Bulletin was properly appalled: “The characters here depicted are so brutal as to anesthetize all sympathy, and their savagery is minutely explored by the director, Howard W. Koch, in a manner that leaves one shocked yet disinterested” they wrote. BIG HOUSE U.S.A. was for years a difficult movie to find. It was near the top of my want list and had never had any type of release for home viewing. At the dollar store once I ran across a cheap public domain DVD of a film titled RANSOM MONEY and the packaging claimed it starred Broderick Crawford, Lon Chaney, and Charles Bronson. Assuming it was a retitling of BIG HOUSE U.S.A., I excitedly purchased it only to discover at home that it was a 1970 TV movie called RANSOM MONEY and Chaney and Bronson were not in it. I wept. Last year MGM announced BIG HOUSE U.S.A. would be available on their made-to-order DVD-R ‘On Demand’ Classics Collection series. I bought it and, though it’s a bare bones disc with no extras, it’s a sharp transfer with strong contrasts and minimal grain. It’s great to have BIG HOUSE U.S.A., one of my favorite movies, finally in my collection.

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