Big House, U.S.A.

I get the Thieves Like Us (1975) disk from Netflex. I want to write an article comparing it to They Live by Night (1948). The disk doesn’t work after trying multiple times. It’s late and I still want to watch a film. I check my DVR list and find one from channel 277, CHARGE!

Big House, U.S.A. (1955) had a promising cast, the principals in the photo above as well as Lon Chaney Jr. I reluctantly watch prison movies, some exceptions being Brute Force (1947), Escape from Alcatraz (1981), Cool Hand Luke (1967), A Man Escaped (1956), Down by Law (1986), and a few more (if pressed). Maybe I gravitated to Big House because They Live by Night is about escaped convicts.

Despite its title, Big House, U.S.A. is only partially a prison film, which lubricates the viewing experience for me but also creates a disjointedness in the film’s dramatic movement. There’s another element that disrupts but not necessarily damages the narrative.

The first third of the film takes place at Royal Gorge National Park in Colorado. An opportunistic criminal, Jerry Barker, finds a lost kid in the forest and promises to lead him to safety. Instead, he stashes the kid in an abandoned ranger tower and proceeds to contact the father (Willis Bouchey) for a quarter million dollar ransom. The father pays off but doesn’t get back the kid. He tells the chief ranger (Roy Roberts) who contacts the F.B.I., whose agent (Reed Hadley) appears on the scene.

During the search for the kid, who is asthmatic, both the Ranger and the F.B.I. agent narrate some of the events, in the manner of Dragnet. In fact, Reed Hadley narrated many films including The House on 92nd Street (1945), Boomerang! (1947), T-Men (1947) and He Walks by Night (1948). What seems strange is having the characters within the story speak outside the story. The F.B.I. agent’s narration supplants the chief ranger’s, which we don’t hear again.

Perhaps the most astounding part of the first sequence occurs when the kidnapped boy falls off the ranger tower when trying to get away. Barker sees it happening but doesn’t seem to react. He approaches the boy, who may or may not be dead, feels for a pulse in the neck, then picks up the boy and carries him away from the tower. Not far away is a gorge. Barker walks up to it and nonchalantly tosses the boy’s body away. The brutality of the action prefigures future brutal actions. An important plot point: the boy’s body is never found.

The police examine every vehicle leaving the national park. Barker, they discover, has a gun. He also has a half dozen fish caught in one of the lakes. They bring him in for questioning. He has a prison record. The story about the fish falls apart when he’s told all the fish in the lake had died the year before. Worse, they found some of the ransom money hidden inside a spare tire. He thinks fast. He had heard about the rich kid’s disappearance and planned to extort money from the father: a crime of opportunity. Without the boy, alive or dead, the authorities can’t prove kidnapping. Barker ends up with a one-to-five year prison term.

We enter the second part of the story. He’s sent to an island prison, its exterior the Cascabel Island prison in the Sea of Cortes. The interior shots were from MacNeil Island penitentiary in Washington state, whose famous inmates included Robert Stroud (Birdman of Alcatraz), Charles Manson, and Mickey Cohen. Use of the prisons solidifies Big House’s prison credentials.

Then the warden does something that seems incredible, except as Hollywood shorthand. Barker is placed in a cell with four murderers, led by Broderick Crawford. Sometimes schools (in ancient times – the 1950s and 60s – placed a contingent of discipline problems in one section. Schools can be like a prison, since we’re sentenced to stay there from ages 6 to 16, but in both cases it only amps up the mischief. Indeed, our four murderers are in the midst of planning a jailbreak. The second brutal death occurs when a fifth inmate gets caught in a chamber with hot steam and is burned to death (curiously, the warden and guard don’t notice the man is missing). The break called for aqualungs, made from fire extinguishers, and now there’s an extra one. Crawford decides to include Barker in the escape, but Barker wants nothing to do with it. He has a short prison term.

Crawford figures that they could use the money Barker hid in the park, around $200,000. He puts it succinctly: “I’m gonna kidnap a kidnapper for the money he kidnapped for.” During the breakout, they forcibly take Barker along. He’s trapped when they reach a boat and sail toward the coast. They will kill him if he does or does not take them to the money. He’ll live longer if he takes them to it.

To be sure the authorities aren’t looking for them at the national park, Crawford tells Talman to bludgeon a sleeping Bronson to a pulp and then take an acetylene torch and burn his face and fingers. They put Barker’s clothes on Bronson and dump him in the water. Lon Chaney Jr. sees what has happened and goes after Crawford, who shoots him.

A radio broadcasts that Barker’s body has been found, probably the victim of a boat exploding. That does it. The three head for Royal Gorge. But the message was a ruse and the convicts get caught or killed while digging up the ransom. The film ends with a grim epilogue by Reed Hadley, the FBI agent/narrator: Little Danny Lambert’s body was never found.

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