Big House, U.S.A.
(United Artists, 1955)
Ralph Meeker about to be pistol-whipped into next week by William Talman under the
approving eye of Broderick Crawford.
5 Killer Convicts Break Out!
Just the Facts
Howard W. Koch (not to be confused with Howard Koch, who co-wrote Casablanca) was a prolific producer/director who made a number of harder-than-hard-boiled films during the 1950s, notably Shield for Murder (1954), with Edmond O’Brien as a mad dog killer cop; and Violent Road (1958), a highly entertaining low-budget rip-off of Henri George Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1954). But Koch’s masterpiece, his crime Casablanca, if you will, was this brutal tale of a callous kidnapper played by Ralph Meeker, whose intense, tight-lipped portrayal seems like a warm-up for his blistering turn as anti-hero Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly released the same year. In fact, Big House, U.S.A. is a contender for the most mean-spirited crime film of the decade, peopled with barely human characters and bursting with primal fifties brutality, including death by scalding and bludgeoning, unrestrained pistol-whipping, blowtorch corpse-disfiguring, and convict-killing policemen.
The tough and unrelenting narrative gets underway when asthmatic weakling Danny Lambert (Peter J. Votrian) crashes out of a summer camp at Colorado’s Royal Gorge Park before a needle-wielding nurse can inject him with an allergy shot. Unfortunately, he runs straight into the not-so-tender mercies of a fisherman named Jerry Barker (Meeker), who promises to return Danny to his father. Feigning concern over the boy’s condition, he parks him in an abandoned fire tower while he “goes for help.” Instead, he phones Mr. Lambert (Willis Bouchey) and demands a $200,000 ransom.
Meanwhile, the increasingly agitated Danny attempts to climb down the tower, but inadvertently falls to his death just as Barker returns. Barker, a true sociopath, expresses not a shred of remorse over the boy’s demise as he tosses the body into a deep gorge as if he were throwing out the trash. He calmly collects the ransom money, but is caught trying to leave the park when rangers discover his un-permitted pistol. Confronted by FBI Special Agent James Madden (Reed Hadley) and the boy’s father, it’s obvious that Barker is guilty of kidnapping, but since the body can’t be found, Barker is convicted only of extortion and sentenced to five years in Cascabel Island Prison.
Meeker cools his heels while being guarded by Nazi stormtroopers...er, park rangers.
Things go from bad to worse for Barker when the warden assigns him to a cell inhabited by a quartet of lifers led by Rollo Lamar (Broderick Crawford), a bank job strategist and the most ruthless man in the joint. Barker, whom the press dubs “Iceman” for his cool demeanor, is hated on sight by his new playmates, as well as the entire prison population, which brands him a child killer. Lamar, however, is quick to recognize Barker’s market value, sardonically telling his fellow cons, “I’m gonna kidnap a kidnapper for the money he kidnapped for.” The Iceman is thus co-opted against his will in an ingenious breakout utilizing the prison boiler room, improvised scuba suits and a fast getaway boat. But the convicts’ initial success soon evaporates in the face of overpowering greed and murderous impulses. Things come to an appropriately bloody conclusion back in the park where Barker has buried the ransom money—and a small boy named Danny.
Koch contextualizes the ferocious goings-on in a workmanlike, quasi-documentary style, with many of the grislier moments occurring off-camera (which, ironically, makes them all the more horrific). The flat, stripped-down images from cinematographer Gordon Avil also complement the harshness of the story and characters. Koch doesn’t attempt any of the stylistic flourishes of noir films, but he does conjure a few startling images that linger in memory. The film's opening shot reveals a cloudless sky into which a tightly gripped pistol suddenly thrusts into view and is immediately fired. It turns out to be merely a starter’s pistol for a children’s footrace at the summer camp, but it effectively presages the impending violence and death in store for several of the characters. Later in the film, FBI Agent Madden and the park’s chief ranger are engaged in a low-key conference in the latter’s office, but Koch adds a disquieting note through the foreground inclusion of a carbine rifle that visually dominates the frame. These and similar visual frissons shotgunned throughout the film effectively evoke the era’s pervasive gun culture.
Yeah, this is how we roll.
Koch also excels at conveying the loathing that both the police and the prison inmates have for Barker, notably in the scene where Robertson Lambert pleads with an unresponsive Barker for his son’s life, not realizing that he’s already dead. The FBI man and park rangers intuit it, however, and stare daggers at the stone-faced kidnapper. Barker’s introduction to his cellmates is similarly effective, where he’s greeted with a sardonic “Well, the Iceman cometh” from Lamar and cold shoulders all around. Equally commendable is Koch and screenwriter John C. Higgins’ refusal to indulge in the usual prison movie clichés: There are no stern lectures from the warden, no beat-downs administered by the guards, and no one gets thrown into the hole. The harshness of the environment is conveyed through visual emphasis on the cramped quarters of the cell and the hellish working conditions in the boiler room, which Avil utilizes to evoke Dantesque images of toiling, sweating men.
Higgins’ terse and unsentimental dialog recalls his screenplay contributions to earlier crime classics Raw Deal (1948) and He Walked by Night (1948). The overall tone is serious and matter of fact during the early section of the film detailing the kidnapping and manhunt, then takes on black comic undertones in the prison scenes. There’s some nice banter between Lamar and Alamo Smith (Lon Chaney, Jr.), in addition to a number of barbed exchanges between Lamar and Barker. Even the warden gets to deliver some droll observations on Barker’s cellmates, including this priceless nugget: “Alamo Smith—border killer, narcotic runner, wetback smuggler. You know, he’s not a bad guy, if he’s kept locked up.”
But the best lines are mainly reserved for the bad guys, who are much more compelling and charismatic than the bland, impersonal representatives of law and order. This contrast is just one of many narrative subversions that elevate Big House, U.S.A. to the highest level of fifties crime filmdom.
Bronson and Crawford compete for the sexiest chest. William Talman tries to contain
Fingering the Fifties
• Park rangers on horseback.
• Benny Kelly (Charles Bronson) reading a muscle magazine in his cell.
• Unintentionally humorous voiceover.
• Prevalence of high-profile kidnappings.
• Gas chamber retribution.
ROLLO LAMAR: “I got news for you. What you saw, forget it. If you don’t, I’m gonna step on ya and squash ya.”
JERRY “ICEMAN” BARKER: “Look, you. Top dog, big wheel, boss con, or whatever you rate around this iron lung. You don’t scare me. Okay, so all the pimps and perverts and potlickers got no time for me. Fine! But nobody around this joint calls me a squealer.”
ROLLO LAMAR: “Any of you geniuses know what apparently means?”
LEONARD “ALAMO” SMITH: “Apparently?”
ROLLO LAMAR: “Yeah.”
BENNY KELLY: “Yeah, it means that something that ain’t, looks like it is.”
Engand’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.”
The New York Times also saw fit to cock a snook at the film: “Although they supposedly have based the script on a real unsolved case, both director Howard W. Koch and John C. Higgins, the scenarist, have kept the sleuthing methodical and on the sidelines. They clear the decks for some graphic but standard bloodiness on the part of Mr. Meeker and his snarling kind. At one point, for instance, one convict scalds to death inside a boiler. Another one, a corpse this time, is rendered unrecognizable by a blowtorch. And where, during all this, are the anguished parents of the missing child? Don't ask us.”
"Did anyone remember to lock the cell door before we escaped?"
Director: Howard W. Koch; screenplay: John C. Higgins, George F. Slavin (story), George W. George (story); producer: Aubrey Schenck; music: Paul Dunlap; cinematography: Gordon Avil; format: black and white, 83 minutes, 1.75:1 aspect ratio
Ralph Meeker (Geraldo “Jerry” Barker, aka Iceman); Broderick Crawford (Rollo Lamar); Reed Hadley (FBI Special Agent James Madden); William Talman (William “Machine gun” Mason); Lon Chaney Jr. (Leonard “Alamo” Smith); Charles Bronson (Benny Kelly); Felicia Farr (Emily Euridice Evans); Roy Roberts (Chief Ranger Will Erickson); Willis Bouchey (Robertson Lambert); Peter J. Votrian (Danny Lambert)
Watch It Here