Big House, U.S.A. (1955)

  • Year: 1955
  • Released: 18 Nov 1955
  • Country: United States
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  • Available in: 720p, 1080p,
  • Language: English
  • MPA Rating: Approved
  • Genre: Crime, Drama, Film-Noir
  • Runtime: 83 min
  • Writer: John C. Higgins, George W. George, George F. Slavin
  • Director: Howard W. Koch
  • Cast: Broderick Crawford, Ralph Meeker, Reed Hadley
  • Keywords: ransom, prison escape,

Big House, U.S.A. Storyline

When young Danny Lambert runs away from camp in south-central Colorado, he becomes the object of a park-wide-search by his wealthy father Robertson Lambert. He is found by Gerry Barker and told to wait at an abandoned look-out tower while he goes for help. Instead, Barker calls the father and demands $200,000 ransom. The money is delivered and Barker buries most of it. Meanwhile, the panicky boy has fallen from the tower to his death, and Barker drops the body off a cliff. The FBI, led by James Madden, capture Barker but can’t convict him of kidnapping and he is given only five years for extortion and sent to Casabel Island Prison. There he is assigned a cell with Rollo Lambar, Alamo Smith, Benny Kelly and Machine Gun Mason. The FBI have now traced an affiliation between Barker and Emily Evans, a nurse at Danny’s camp. The five cell-mates, led by Rollo, who plans to kill Benny and dress him in Barker’s clothes to throw off the police, execute an underwater prison escape, and head north for the ransom money.—Les Adams

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Big House, U.S.A. Movie Reviews

Grim documentary style prison drama is gritty and realistic…

The story begins with a lost boy, a kidnapping, a ransom as extortionist RALPH MEEKER takes advantage of a situation which led to the death of the boy. The F.B.I. is soon on the case when the boy’s father reports his disappearance. Meeker is sent to an island prison to serve a sentence as an extortionist who has $200,000 hidden somewhere.

He’s thrown in with some hardened criminal types–CHARLES BRONSON, BRODERICK CRAWFORD, LON CHANEY, JR.–labeled “the Iceman” because of his cool demeanor and icy gaze. Crawford has one of the film’s best lines: “Well, the iceman cometh.” Since no prison drama would be complete without an escape plan being hatched, BIG HOUSE U.S.A. is no exception. The suspense lies mainly in the survival of Meeker who is known as the most hated man in prison because he harmed a boy. Crawford devises an escape plan that includes Meeker, “the goose that laid the golden egg”, so he can share the hidden loot with them. Of course, it’s a crime doesn’t pay melodrama, so in the end all their best laid plans go awry.

Nice outdoor photography in Royal Gorge Park, Colorado, for the rugged scenes in the finale.

Summing up: Well worth your time–interesting and gritty.

Gritty and awful–and I liked that about this film!

The film begins with a little boy getting lost while at summer camp. Ralph Meeker finds the boy and pretends to be helping him, but actually is intent on kidnapping him and holding him for a huge ransom. Unfortunately, the kid dies while in his care but Meeker is an animal and STILL proceeds to get the money and then tries to skip town. However, the cold and calculating killer is caught and sent to prison–but unfortunately, all they can prove is that he extorted the money–not that he had anything to do with the boy’s disappearance.

This is sort of like a prison movie merged with a Film Noir flick. That’s because much of the beginning and ending of the film is set outside prison and its style throughout was rather Noir inspired–with a format much like an episode of DRAGNET (the bloodier 1950s version, not the late 60s incarnation). However, it did lack some of the great Noir camera-work and lighting as well as the cool Noir lingo–but it still succeeded in telling a great story. What was definitely Noir was the unrelentingly awful and brutal nature of the film–a plus for Noir fans. Now I hate violent and bloody films, but this one was a bit more restrained but still very shocking for a 1950s audience–featuring some of the most brutal plot elements of the decade (tossing a child’s body off a cliff, burning a corpse with a blowtorch to confuse in the identification of another corpse and the scene with the escaped prisoner who is scalded to death). Because of all this, the film was above all else, realistic and shocking–much of it due to the excellent script, straight-forward acting and a few excellent and unexpected plot twists.

By the way, this is one of the earliest films in which Charles Bronson appears with this name (previously, he’d been billed as “Charlie Buchinsky”). When he takes his shirt off in the film, take a look at how muscle-bound he was–I sure would have hated to have tangled with him!! In his prime, he might have been the most buff actor in Hollywood history who DIDN’T suck down steroids (and, consequently, had minuscule testicles from this drug).

Per the Lindbergh Law

Big House USA sounds like a prison picture, but only in part of the film is the setting a maximum security prison. There is the part how Ralph Meeker got there and the last part about his escape with several other solid citizens, residents of Big House USA.

A young boy with one rich father is kidnapped by Meeker and dies while in his custody. Not that he killed him, but kidnapping alone as per the Lindbergh law gets him the gas chamber. Father Willis Bouchey pays the ransom, but gets no child back.

Meeker is arrested, but all he’s charged with is extortion, without a body dead or alive, the authorities can do no more. But with the reputation as a child killer, Meeker’s not going to be a popular guy even in the maximum security federal penitentiary he’s sent.

But cell-mate Broderick Crawford has other ideas about the ransom money never recovered and buried in a national park. He and confederates Lon Chaney, Jr., William Talman, and Charles Bronson escape with Meeker. They had an escape plan in the works already, a quite ingenious one which costs another prisoner his life during a dry run.

A chance to see all these guys in a film is never to be passed up. Crawford we’re told is a smart guy. Personally if he were that smart he’d have realized that the authorities would know full well he was heading for the park and go anywhere else. But greed overtakes intelligence.

There’s also a nice role here for Felicia Farr as Meeker’s accomplice. FBI man Reed Hadley and chief forest ranger Roy Roberts represent the law.

Big House USA spends more time in the wide open spaces than in a maximum security prison. Still it’s a tight little noir film with a fine cast of players.