A Hard Knight’s Days

In conjunction with the James Bond novels and 1960s movies, which were termed fairy tales for adults, the fictional arrival of the historical exploits of one Harry Paget Flashman tends to play like a Bob Hope adventure penned by Frank Harris.  Indeed, this inspired Victorian account of perhaps literature’s greatest “rotter” came from the fertile mind of George MacDonald Fraser, and Flashman’s future as an eventual screen vehicle seemed destined to happen.  And so it did, in Richard Lester’s way underrated 1975 rollicking comedy ROYAL FLASH, now on limited Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

Flashman actually first made his appearance as the school bully in the Thomas Hughes’s 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days (appropriately portrayed in one of the several film versions by former Dead End Kid Billy Halop).  A relatively minor character, Flashman piqued the interest of author Fraser who pondered whatever became of this scoundrel.  The result was aforementioned novel, simply entitled Flashman, which purported to have been culled by a cache of unearthed Flashman Papers, discovered in 1965.

Almost immediately, movie folk were interested.  Why such a bounder would be considered cinematic fodder is not so surprising after the rousing success of Tom Jones and the more contemporary Alfie; thus, Richard Lester pressed United Artists to let him tackle the notorious cad.  While Lester had done UA proud via two Beatles pics and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, his last effort, How I Won the War, wasn’t the blockbuster the moguls had hoped.  With its lavish period settings, Flashman promised to be an expensive endeavor, so they politely (well, maybe not so politely passed).

In 1973, Lester partnered with the Salkinds, who, in turn, partnered with 20th Century-Fox to film the ultimate version of The Three Musketeers (which extended into The Four Musketeers, and scripted by Fraser).  The all-star movies were wildly successful and with the dream of Flashman still hovering above like a post-nitrate Sword of Damacles, UA magnanimously decided to give the matter another think before, once again, deep-sixing it.  Musketeers’s Fox, however, came to the rescue, and, at last Flashman, now ROYAL FLASH (based on the fourth and not the first novel in the series), was a go.

Making Flashman, the textbook coward, a hero by no fault of his own (a side-splitting early battle sequence) instantly sets the tone.  The cruel bully of Tom Brown is now a more virile version of Bob “Monsieur Beaucaire” Hope, and I wanna tell ya, it’s a some kinda blunderful.  Malcolm McDowell superbly portrays the dubious soldier/reluctant spy/master of the boudoir in this tale of sexual intrigue that nearly rocks two European empires.  Of course, what good is a rake without any hoes, and, to ROYAL FLASH‘s credit, there couldn’t be a better pair than the ravishing Florinda Bolkan and the luscious Britt Ekland.  Bolkan plays the real-life Lola Montes (in a part supposedly originally offered to Brigitte Bardot) and even has a lusty girl-girl duel with a rival femme, refereed by Alastair Sim, no less!  It’s a sight to behold, to say the least.  Ekland portrays a beauteous but tedious princess, and is, shall we say, buoyantly amusing, but it’s the rapacious Bolkan, with more machismo than many of the era’s men, who shines.  Check out her S&M encounter, terrorizing the nevertheless willing victim McDowell with a wire hairbrush.  It’s that kind of a movie – one poster featured a tunic-adorned McDowell, his lower torso wrapped in a Union Jack, and a drunken woman’s thighs peering from the patriotic drapery.  All this under a herald announcing “The Greatest Swordsman of Them All!”

The cast is truly extraordinary, and, in addition to the above, includes Alan Bates, Tom Bell, Christopher Cazenove, Joss Ackland, Lionel Jeffries, Michael Hordern, Leon Greene and Bob Hoskins.  But, for me, the star of ROYAL FLASH is the nefarious impersonation of Otto von Bismarck, enacted with perfection by the great Oliver Reed.  It is Reed who “convinces” the trembling McDowell to cheat his way into history by taking over as his royal double; yes, this is, by Fraser’s fake accounts, the incident that ignited the mind of Anthony Hope to create his 1894 classic The Prisoner of Zenda.  More than the escalating budget, it was this precise plot point that reportedly was the reason UA reneged on the project the second time around (too many goddamn adaptations, or, succinctly, NoEnders to Zendas).  Along with the abundance of bon mots (courtesy of Fraser, who wrote the script), director Lester sprinkles a plethora of riotous trademark visual puns, many that would warm the cockles of Frank Tashlin’s heart.  So pleased were all those creatively concerned during the filming that plans were made to adapt more Flashman adventures (there were, all told, twelve novels).  But the Victorian jackboot was about to drop.

Fox was nonplussed by the rough cut, and removed spools of celluloid (including all the footage with Lester’s beloved stock-company player Roy Kinnear).  Taking the then-remaining 118-minute version, the studio made further cuts of more than a reel to 96 minutes (some since restored, comprising the Twilight Time 102-minute edition).  While hardcore Lester fans still ate it up, the large share of 1975 audiences (and critics) weren’t exactly bowled over, and ROYAL FLASH ended up on the year-end Fox tally-sheets as a resounding flop.  This proved to be quite a dismal time for the director, as Lester’s previous work, 1974’s Juggernaut, a slick, tense sea thriller (sold as a disaster pic), also bellied up…or rather sunk (a shame, as I really like it as well).  Suffice to say, unlike the Musketeers experience, author Fraser wasn’t pleased by Lester’s approach either and, upon viewing the final result, vowed to never again let any of his books be brought before the cameras as long as he lived.

As one might expect, the look of ROYAL FLASH is fantastic.  The set design, art direction, costumes, props, etc. encompass everything one might expect in a super opulent production.  This is superbly realized by the spectacular cinematography of Geoffrey Unsworth, and the excellent jubilant music adaptor (and conductor) Ken Thorne.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray captures all the pomp and pageantry intended by Lester & Co.  Ditto the bawdy, ribald fun.  The cast truly appears to be having a blast, and, I daresay, so will you.  To this day, some of the stunning meticulous imagery haunts my decidedly demented brain, specifically a climactic railway car dotting a desolate picturesque blizzard-framed landscape.  It’s a mythic hybrid of both Zhivago and Trivago.

Twilight Time, in addition to offering the Thorne music as an IST, has further sweetened the pot by including audio commentary with star McDowell and film historian Nick Redman, plus two featurette documentaries and the theatrical trailer.

Harry Flashman is the personification of the adage, “Whoever said life was fair?”  In the novels, the lecher dies titled, rich and respected.  How the undeserving wastrel got that way from disreputable beginnings measuring lower than a worm’s genitalia is partially explained in ROYAL FLASH‘s faux-scholarly witty narrative.  Let the shames begin.

ROYAL FLASH.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition].  2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  SRP:  $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment:  www.screenarchives.com

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I Lust Lucy

In a bold and daring move, the writing/producing/directing team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank undertook a controversial subject for 1960:  adulterous sex in the suburbs.  What made it bold and daring were their choices for the two leads:  Bob Hope and Lucille Ball.  The results were the consistently amusing THE FACTS OF LIFE, now on Blu-Ray from Olive Films/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

Panama and Frank had a long and illustrious history with Hope (as two of his army of scribes).  Their rung up the ladder to movie-makers, first as writers (Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, White Christmas) then as a team, with Frank directing (Callaway Went Thataway, Knock on Wood, The Court Jester, Li’l Abner), encompassed a mere matter-of-time wheel spin before inevitably gravitating back once more to the man who made it all possible (they had previously codirected the excellent underrated 1956 Hope comedy That Certain Feeling).

Hope, savvy as ever, knew that by 1959 his type of screen comedy was thinning faster than his hairline, and thought about dipping his toes into the deeper adult comedic waters being tread by the likes of Billy Wilder – to say nothing of the earthy progressive stuff imported from Europe.  Hope agreed, as long as Ball would be his illicit on-screen mate.  Surprisingly, she jumped at the chance, with ardent support from real-life hubby Desi Arnaz.

The picture was to be made modestly, with everyone (hopefully) sharing in profit participation. It would also carry the distributorship of United Artists, Hope’s new movie home after twenty years at Paramount (although many Paramount coworkers would remain on Bob’s UA payroll).

The script is fairly sophisticated for its time.  It rudely skewers suburbia, the upper-middle class, television, drive-in movies, no-tell motels and even the Cub Scouts of America.  From the get-go, THE FACTS OF LIFE has everything I love in early 1960s movies, including a sugar ‘n’ spice smarmy title tune (composed by Johnny Mercer and sung in duet by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme) and jokey animated main credits (by Saul Bass, no less).

Hope and Ball are two middle-aged victims of marriages gone stale.  Their only respite is their mutual dislike for one another (each is a nabe wise-ass, or, as Hope’s character dubs her, “Milton Berle in bloomers”).  But, as the classic ditty tells us, “it’s a thin line between love and hate,” so when their country-club retreat to Mexico goes south (with their respective spouses having to bow out and the other duos felled by Montezuma’s Revenge), the two antagonists are pushed-comes-to-shoved together – figuratively, and then literally. Some pretty ribald stuff unfolds as the two adversaries transform from growling cheetahs to prowling cheaters, eventually plotting a Stateside partaking in America’s second bat ‘n’ balls favorite pastime (the funniest moment being when an anxious Hope, thoughtfully suggesting refreshments, drives off from their sleazy hourly rented point of assignation, but, due to the seemingly thousands of cheap motels in the vicinity, can’t remember where he stashed Ball).

It was a risky endeavor to project these two human bastions of family values into the kinda stuff more apropos to the likes of Mamie Van Doren and Ray Danton.  In fact, THE FACTS OF LIFE often plays in part like a wacky take on Richard Quine’s exceptional sex-in-the-burbs drama Strangers When We Meet, made the same year.

A pallor of sink-or-swim doom permeated the production as the principals and UA heads pondered whether audiences would accept their icons of nuclear family fun as sneaky, horny philanderers (recent Disney star and now-TV dad Fred MacMurray was already receiving flak from fans due to his performance in The Apartment).  This wasn’t helped by the eyebrow-raising battles between the two stars.

Hope and Ball had been “pals” for years, appearing on each other’s shows and costarring twice before dans le cinema in Sorrowful Jones (1949) and Fancy Pants (1950).  But that pair of Paramount hits had been first and foremost Bob Hope vehicles with a pre-I Love Lucy Ball being the prerequisite pretty female teammate, more along the lines of Rhonda Fleming, Joan Caulfield and Marilyn Maxwell.  Things were very different on THE FACTS OF LIFE.  Lucille Ball was now Hope’s full-fledged costar, as important a lure on the marquee as he was.  She was also a film/TV executive with sharp business acumen, presiding over several of her company’s boards and known for taking no prisoners.

So when Hope’s barrage of writers kept sweetening the pot with new one-liners to keep it fresh, Ball winced, then roared.  As an MC at a country club event, Hope delivers some snarky, albeit tired jibes at members (with cuts to a bored Ball rolling her eyes and shaking her head).  Hope couldn’t resist punching up the asides a bit, and when he cracked a scripted “Madam, your vodka gimlets are showing,” he snuck in a hastily-added “Vodka, that’s an alcohol rub from the inside.”  Ball had had it.  “ENOUGH!,” she reputedly snarled, “KEEP TO THE GODDAMN SCRIPT!”  This took Hope aback (“Hey, she didn’t do that on Fancy Pants”), but nevertheless put him on his game.  Their subsequent tight-lipped insults to each other take on a meaning all their own (as enemies, would-be lovers and ex-paramours) – so much so that both were nominated for Golden Globes.  Ball supposedly told a confidante that if he slips in one Bing Crosby line, she would raise @##$%& hell (mercifully, he didn’t).

But physical trauma reared its ugly noggin as well. During a scene on a fishing boat, Ball fell, severely injuring her head, knocking her unconscious. She also suffered multiple face and leg bruises.  Desi, Bob, cast, crew and the United Artists were relieved that she was pronounced concussion-free; trouper that she was, Ball bounced back, reporting for work almost immediately.  But other mishaps continually cursed the apparently jinxed production.  Mel Frank broke his ankle during the shoot, and directed most of the picture on crutches.  Later, Hope suffered an on-set mishap, smashing his fingers, and crew members, gophers and entourage “yes” folk suffered an unusually abundant of painful casualties throughout the filming.  Furthermore, Hope and Ball were pissed when their plan to have Desi pop up for a cameo in the Mexican sequences was squelched by Arnaz, who felt it wasn’t right for the picture (he was correct).   Ball then perilously tempted fate when, the locations shot, the company headed back to Desilu, where all the interiors were to be lensed.  Referring to her studio as “that old firetrap” was akin to a voodoo double-dare; several days after they wrapped, the soundstage partially burned down.

The supporting cast in THE FACTS OF LIFE is wonderful.  Ruth Hussey and Don DeFore realistically portray Hope and Ball’s boring spouses (it would be DeFore’s next-to-last big screen appearance before his TV Hazel-bump gave him sort-of media immortality).  Louise Beavers, in her final screen turn, provides laughs as Hope’s family’s wiseacre maid.  Plus such familiar favorites as Louis Nye as a lecherous busybody neighbor, Philip Ober (husband of Vivian “Ethel Mertz” Vance), Robert F. Simon, Peter Leeds, Mike Mazurki, Vito Scotti, Addison Richards and even silent-screen comic Snub Pollard.

As one might expect, there are some rapid-fire corkers sprinkled throughout the proceedings, key being Hussey’s concern for leaving their young children alone for the couple’s upcoming Mexican sojourn.  Hope, as only he can, beautifully retorts “Don’t worry, I hid the liquor.”

Panama, Frank, Hope, Ball and the UA suits needn’t have worried.  Upon its November holiday release, THE FACTS OF LIFE unanimously garnered rave reviews and reaped phenomenal box office from coast to coast (it would be Hope’s last bona fide smash hit).  In a very competitive year, comprising such formidable fare as the aforementioned The Apartment (plus Psycho, Exodus, Spartacus, Elmer Gantry and Two Women among others), THE FACTS OF LIFE more than held its own, even making The New York Times Ten Best list.  It was nominated for five Oscars (including Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen, and the Mercer song), winning one (Edith Head, Best Costume Design, Black and White).

For all the juice THE FACTS OF LIFE squeezed, by decade’s end the picture was all but forgotten.  The culture shock, time-wise, from 1960 to 1970 was like dog years, and Hope and Ball’s names meant little, save the occasional television special.

But the script was a winner, and the situations and some of the original lines too sharp to completely discard.  So, in another bold and daring move, Frank and cowriter Jack Rose semi-rejuvenated the project by injecting hipper names (George Segal and Glenda Jackson) and re-packaged the whole megillah as A Touch of Class. It proved to be an even bigger blockbuster for 1973 moviegoers (winning Jackson a Best Actress statuette), and securing a deceptive Best Writing for Material Not Previously Published or Produced nomination.  Yikes.

The Olive/MGM/Fox Blu-Ray of THE FACTS OF LIFE is terrific, with its crystal-clear black-and-white photography (by the great Charles Lang) never looking better, nor its mono audio crackling without crackle (including the peppy score by Leigh Harline).

As a retro example of Camelot American risqué, THE FACTS OF LIFE is a classic.  If you’re a Hope and/or Ball fan, you can’t afford not to own it.  If you’re from the opposite camp (“camp” being the key word), you still might want to take the chance of seeing these two icons magnificently portray a couple inept middle-classless jerks.

THE FACTS OF LIFE.  Black and White.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF946.  SRP: $29.95.

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Pound for Pound

George Sanders running a Victorian whorehouse?  Sounds too good to be true, yet that’s a key plotline in 1969’s THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON, now on DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.

A flawed, but generally amusing (and often, riotously so) comedy, this Philip Saville-directed farce uses many real-life Victorians to tell its sordid tail…errr tale.

Rampant prostitution has made it impossible for decent women to walk the streets, so to speak.  It’s become so crowded that the Queen has ordered head government officials to perform an act at once!  In rapacious response, the editor of The Times congregates a quorum of high level capitalists to help come up with a solution.  And come they do.  Smarmy Sir Francis Leybourne (Sanders) is recruited to bankroll the lunatic idea that the only way to remove women of ill repute from the sidewalks of London is to ensconce them in a palatial brothel, catering to the very elite (and thus, relegating the lower horny classes into working 24/7 for the rich, as they won’t be able to afford the pleasures of the flesh; in effect, keep the poor in the gutter, and get their minds out of it).  Wow – what a concept!

Sir Francis takes this scheme to heart and even actively finds a desirable location – a girl’s boarding school, which he plans to “renovate.”  Leybourne figures it might be a coup if he can likewise scout young, winsome lasses to stay on and thereby learn a trade.

Sanders is superb in a major sequence at the lower school’s girl’s recital where he does one of his trademark double-takes as a pre-teen sings joyously of her pet in a ditty entitled “My Little Pussy.”  It’s a Mrs. Slocombe moment to be cherished.  Sanders also triumphs in delivering many of the double (and triple) entendres and bon mots, especially later on when we learn that the profits from his ill-gotten gains are to be transferred to his India holdings, where he plots to have his plantation slave labor harvest opium, which he plans to sell to (wait for it) the Chinese.  Told that his workers are rebelling over what he considers generous conditions, Sanders (again, as only he can) brilliantly retorts, “You pay 2 pounds 10 a year and it goes to their heads!”

But THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON isn’t all George Sanders (who expires midway through).  There’s a genuine historical point to be made.  The efforts of women’s rights advocates Emmeline Pankhurst and Josephine Butler are personified by the beauteous presence of Joanna Pettet (as Josephine Pacefoot), suffragette-setting all over the place.  Realizing that poor women have two choices, appalling poverty/early death or prostitution, she strives to help the fallen ladies achieve independence in ways other than those of the flesh.  To this goal, she enlists eccentric Italian  inventor/aristocrat Count Pandolfo (the great and recently departed Warren Mitchell), who employs the former whores and escorts as builders of his mammoth dirigible, a hilarious visual pun in itself (shots of the young women stroking and stretching the airship, essentially a giant deflated phallus, are a sight to behold).  Helping Pettet is lovesick goody-goody Benjamin Oakes (prat-falling pratt David Hemmings).  Ignorant of all ways of the female, Oakes prays that he will win the coveted hand of Josephine.  But there is dastardly business a(Pace)foot, as so does Hemmings’s separated-at-birth Snidely Whiplash twin, the evil Walter Leybourne (you guessed it, a twixt-the-sheets relation of Sanders) who also desires Josephine, and not just her hand.

Disguised as a convent, the “house” becomes the center of gossip amidst an air of mystery.  Where are all these whores suddenly disappearing to? “You can’t put them all down to Jack the Ripper,” offers Hemmings to Pettet.

This is, as one might surmise, crazy, wacky stuff – sort of a Carry On movie on a grander scale.  Indeed, so many comedic Brits show up in cameos that the obvious omission of Carry On folk sticks out like a sore…thumb; the producers, including Carlo Ponti (at one point the movie was to be an Italian import, starring Ponti’s wife Sophia Loren), seem to have intentionally divorced themselves from the long-running and popular series.  While the hearty laughing-at-themselves giggles and guffaws of Barbara Windsor and Sid James are sadly missed (although Eric Barker does sneak in an unbilled appearance), one can’t carp at the thesps who do appear.  Dany Robin (as the French madame of the joint, and lover of both Leybournes) Martita Hunt (the girl’s school proprietress, in her last pic), Maurice Denham, John Bird, Bill Fraser, Wolfe Morris, Tessie O’Shea, Charles Lloyd Pack, Ferdie Mayne, Peter Jeffrey and Thorley Walters (as Holmes and Watson) and even Hammer stalwarts like Milton Reid and Veronica Carlson (badly dubbed, as a Cockney). Plus an early screen appearance by John Cleese.

Nevertheless, it’s the aforementioned celebrated Victorians themselves who provide an additional incentive for entering THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON.  Swerving in and out of the brothel, the busy London streets (courtesy of leftover Oliver! sets), the halls of Parliament and the offices of the fourth estate are (in various stages of dress and undress) Charles Dickens (whose carnal urges prompt him to create “this curiosity shop”), William Makepeace Thackeray, Daddy and Elizabeth Browning, Prime Minister Gladstone, Charles Darwin, Anthony Trollope (replete with built-in pun), John Galsworthy, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Oscar Wilde and even Dr. David Livingstone.  Much of this mirth and wit comes from the pen of screenwriter Denis Norden, who also wrote The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom, another comedy from this era that I like.

What is disturbing about THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON isn’t the raunchy goings-on throughout the abode’s numerous fantasy/sketch rooms, but the fact that a mainstream movie could be made in 1969 featuring references that a mass audience could glean surrounding the likes of the above 19th-century icons.  This is especially grim today, where a large number of Americans can’t even tell you who’s vice-president.  Our increasingly alarming dumbing-down epidemic transcends culture shock – it’s culture apocalypse!  Oh, well, that’s all the Pacefooting you’ll get out of me!

THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON, for all its wink-wink bawdiness and infrequent bare bosoms and bums, was nonetheless given the dreaded X-rating, when MGM disrobed it here in June of 1969.  Today, it has played on TCM during the early morning hours opposite such infantile fare as Bob the Builder, Thomas the Tank Engine and Morning Joe.  That said, in the UK, HOUSE was given a more reasonable release, paired with Metro’s The Green Slime.

The Warner Archive DVD-R of THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON looks pretty good, displaying only slight wear over the decent replicated widescreen MetroColor visuals (nicely photographed by the terrific d.p. Alex Thomson).  Wilfred Shingleton and Fred Carter decorated the “house” with a plethora of Victorian psychedelia, so prominent during the late 1960s, a warm, appreciated retro dose of nostalgia.  The mono soundtrack contains a peppy score by Mischa Spoliansky (leave us not forget the scandalous kitty song by Ronnie Cass and Peter Myers).

With its nonstop gags, buffoonery and over-the-top silliness (ranging from sidesplitting funny to downright groaning awful), THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON can now be enjoyed by all the classes (including the classless).  Probably the only comedy to tackle the Contagious Disease Act of 1864, ‘66 and, most prominently, ‘69, THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON sows its oats from the loins of The Goon Show, occasionally offering us a precursor of its Blackadder progeny.  And ya don’t need protection!

THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON.  Color.  Widescreen (1.85:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic).  Mono audio.  DVD-R made-to-order.  The Warner Archive Collection. CAT # 1000547818.  SRP:  $21.99.

Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection: warnerarchive.com

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Despicable Meeker

Remember the cliché/adage, “Throw a hundred knives up at the ceiling and one is bound to stick”?  Well, when one replaces serrated eating utensils with cans of celluloid, and, when the thrower is none other than low-budget Bel-Air Productions, the answer invariably comes up BIG HOUSE, U.S.A., a 1955 sordid noirish exercise, now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics.

Bel-Air was the stomping ground for those fast-buck purveyors of the bottom-half co-features, Howard W. Koch and Aubrey Schenck.  Their forays into schlock horror (the infamous albeit delightful The Black Sleep), rock ‘n’ roll (Bop Girl Goes Calypso), cut-rate oaters (Revolt at Fort Laramie)…well, you get the idea.  Yet, at their company’s embryonic stage, Koch and Schenck managed to corral some quality folk at the writing level to pen a suitable project for better-than-average Bel-Air contractees.  Ergo, BIG HOUSE, U.S.A.  –  the moniker alone being a pseudo-homage to the pre-Code 1930 epic The Big House, which shot Wallace Beery to major stardom.  Of course, to have a slob of Beery’s calibre is no mean feat; to their credit, Bel-Air strove to go one better and assembled a cast of five slobs, all of notable crotch-scratching gruntability.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The story for BIG HOUSE, U.S.A. came from the minds of two out of three Georges, namely George Slavin and George W. George.  And it’s a lulu!  In fact, one wonders about the exploitative title, as the first act deceptively avoids any incarceration whatsoever.  But that’s how they lure you in (twirl mustache here).

In the beauteous pastoral Royal Gorge National Park in Colorado (actual location work, in and of itself a rarity for a contemporary Bel-Air epic) is a camp for rich liddle kiddies.  One of them, the comely Danny Lambert (Peter J. Votrian), heir to millions, is on the sickly side, and, even though we envision him getting at least five military deferments in later life, we are sympathetic to his plight, especially when he is shabbily treated by the hottie nurse Euridice Evans (great names in this pic) who should definitely know better (and look, folks, it’s Felicia Farr, billed as Randy Farr, in a nasty big-screen debut).  So the tyke wanders off and soon the entire county (if not country) is on the lookout for the sprout, who must get his meds or perish in a display of agonizing writhing that all thespians dream of.

Along comes Jerry Barker, a friendly fisherman/hiker, who recognizes the boy and gregariously offers to spirit him to safety…NOT.  It’s none other than Ralph Meeker, fresh from his stage triumphs as Stanley Kowalski, Hal from the original stage production of Picnic and a memorable MGM contract (here, at UA, he would not only emote for Bel-Air, but attain screen immortality the same year for his iconic portrayal of Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s classic Kiss Me, Deadly.  Suffice to say, his role in this movie makes the sleazy Mickey Spillane detective look less Ralph Meeker and more Donald Meek).  Smooth-talking predator Barker (not unlike the carnival kind) spirits the child to a dilapidated cabin, locks him in and proceeds to blackmail his worried father, Robertson Lambert (the terrific character actor Willis Bouchey) out of 200K.  But the resourceful, tiny Lambert becomes seriously injured while attempting an escape, and Meeker, rather than perform CPR or hurry him to a proper medical facility (he’s already gotten his ransom), simply throws all caution to the wind – and by caution, we mean Danny – and flicks the unconscious body off a 1000-foot precipice of the Grand Canyon variety.

Apprehended, but with the money hidden and no body to be found, Barker smugly accepts his fate of a few years behind bars (suspicion of extortion being the only rap that sticks, sans corpus delicti), intent to wait it out and collect his booty (while other ancillary investigating lawmen Roy Roberts, Reed Hadley, Robert Bray and Stafford Repp do their level-best to uncover electric chair-worthy evidence)

And that’s where BIG HOUSE, U.S.A. truly begins.  Thrown into a cell with an unruly bunch of sociopaths, Meeker, christened by the press as The Iceman, comes up against a quartet of cons who aren’t exactly thrilled to be roomies with an alleged child murderer.  These unhygienic mugs and thugs comprise “Machine Gun” Mason (a grumpy, snarling William Talman), Alamo Smith (a grisly, grizzly Lon Chaney, Jr., out-Lenny-ing Lenny), Benny Kelly (a muscleman-obsessed Charles Bronson), and, most prominently, Rollo Lamar (craggy Broderick Crawford, an intellectual maniac in the Wolf Larsen mold…and I do mean mold!).  Crawford’s a diamond in the rough, spelled “RUFF!”  He makes witty asides that nobody but selected members of the audience gets (kudos to the acerbic script by John C. Higgins).  When Meeker is announced as their newest tenant, Crawford greets him with “Oh, the iceman cometh.”  This bon mot is greeted with a foursome of head-shaking “Huh”s to which the All the King’s Men Oscar-winner responds with an exasperated “Never mind, skip it” disclaimer.

Meeker gets it though, because he quickly realizes that Crawford’s a bigger psycho than he is, and soon, a prerequisite crashout escape strategy takes hold. “I’m gonna kidnap a kidnapper for the money he kidnapped for” Rollo tells his co-conspirators about plans for the reluctant Meeker.

Just how big a psycho is Crawford?  In White Heat, Jimmy Cagney snuffed Paul Guilfoyle, a repugnant snitch.  In BIG HOUSE, U.S.A. Crawford boils buddy Bill McLean like a lobster merely for test-run laffs.

The climactic final third, with a beaten and deservedly abused Meeker led back to the scenic scene of the crime by his greedy tormenters, is a visual ordeal that even the most unsophisticated viewer will correctly surmise not ending well.

BIG HOUSE, U.S.A. is a surprisingly graphic, violent and sadistic little poison pill that keeps one suspensefully on-guard for most of its 83-minute duration.  It’s without question the best picture Bel-Air (or Koch, who directed) ever made.  The stark black-and-white widescreen photography (which also features locations at Canon City, Colorado, Malibu Beach, California, Salt Lake City, Utah, the Gulf of Mexico and the Washington State McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary) by Gordon Avil (who did a number of Bel-Air pics, but is best-known as King Vidor’s d.p. on Hallelujah, Billy the Kid and The Champ) looks great on the Kino Blu-Ray with the music by Paul Dunlap ominously appropriate.

Movies were certainly getting tougher in 1955 with this, the aforementioned Kiss Me, Deadly, The Phenix City Story, House of Bamboo, The Man From Laramie and others all vying for the loudest “Oh, shit!” disbelief moment.  That said, BIG HOUSE, U.S.A., a picture where a happy-go-lucky child murderer isn’t the most vile character, may just take those dubious jaw-dropping top honors.

BIG HOUSE, U.S.A. Black and white.  Widescreen [1.75:1; 1080p High Definition] 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc./20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT # K1748.  SRP:  $29.95.

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