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.