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Big House, U.S.A.
Big House U.S.A., made in 1955 by Howard W. Koch, begins when a boy named Danny Lambert (Peter Votrian) runs away from camp. Alone in the wilds of Colorado, the authorities understandably become concerned and at the behest of his father, Robertson Lambert (Willis Bouchey), launch a sizable hunt to find the boy. A man named Jerry Barker (Ralph Meeker) finds the kid but instead of returning him he holds him for ransom. Willis pays the money, unaware that poor Danny has fallen out of the tower where Jerry has stashed him and died. Panicked Jerry throws Danny's corpse over a cliff and then buries his loot shortly before he's nabbed by James Madden (Reed Hadley) and his team of F.B.I. agents.
Sent to trial (where he's dubbed ‘The Iceman' for his cold demeanor), Jerry is sent off to do five years hard time at Casbel Island Prison where he meets his new cell mates: Rollo Lamar (Broderick Crawford), ‘Machine Gun' Mason (William Talman), Alamo Smith (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Benny Kelly (Charles Bronson). While Jerry's inside, convicted of extortion, Madden and his team try to gather the evidence that they'll need to hit him with kidnapping charges. They find it in the form of a nurse named Emily Evans (Felicia Farr). When Rollo finds out about Barker's stash of loot, he leads the inmates in a daring escape plan.
While the movie gets a bit bogged down when it focuses on the Feds' efforts, when it focuses on the inmates Big House U.S.A. is gold. Meeker's ‘new guy' in the block is an interesting character unto himself but when you place him alongside the likes of Broderick Crawford, Lon Chaney Jr. and a young Charles Bronson you've got yourself one Hell of a cast. Each of these actors plays his worldly, weathered character really well and the interaction between them both in terms of how they use their body language and how they deliver their dialogue is a lot of fun to watch. Meeker and Hadley get a bit more to do here than the others but they all do a fine job of deftly exploiting what they've been given to work with here. Not to be outdone, if Felicia Farr isn't given the deepest of parts she does fine here as well, and she looks quite fetching all dolled up in her nurse's uniform. If Emily Evans isn't written with a lot of character development in mind, she plays an integral part in how the plot unfolds and Farr is well cast in the role.
The film is well paced. It starts off strong and manages to stay interesting throughout. The opening sequence makes nice use of some interesting and picturesque landscapes while the scenes that take place inside the prison don't really do much to capture the intensity they could have. Most of the prison scenes take place inside the cell and you kind of wish they'd get the characters out a bit more to show off some cool locations. We don't get much of that. Regardless, once the escape plan is put into motion it hardly matters, as obviously the focus shifts at that point in the picture. So maybe as a standard prison film this one doesn't quite deliver but the picture holds its own as a solid crime thriller.
As a product of its time, not surprisingly the movie plays up the F.B.I.'s side of the story, even angling it as such when positing it from their perspective. The movie might have stood out a bit more had it given us more of Jerry Barker's perspective but that didn't happen. Thankfully, however, the fast pace, solid action and great cast of tough talking bad dudes keep this one interesting and a whole lot of fun despite its occasional missteps.The Blu-ray:
Big House U.S.A. got an MOD/DVD-R release from the MGM Limited Edition Collection series a few years ago in an open matter transfer that had bad contrast and very iffy detail levels. This Blu-ray release from Kino features a new transfer in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.75.1 widescreen and it looks much, much better than that previous release. Contrast looks just fine here, nothing blooms the way it did on that aforementioned past release and detail is vastly improved not just in close up shots but in pretty much every shot. Black levels are solid and texture is good as well. There's some minor print damage here and a few shots look noticeably grainier than others (likely due to the lighting or other filming conditions) but by and large this is a pretty solid effort from Kino. Fans of this underrated picture should be quite pleased.Sound:
The English language DTS-HD Mono track on the disc is perfectly fine if not particularly remarkable. It delivers pretty much exactly what you'd want from this older, low budget film: clear dialogue, nicely balanced levels and generally just nice, clear audio. There are no alternate language options or subtitles provided here.Extras:
Aside from a static menu offering chapter selection, the disc contains no extra features related to the movie but it does feature trailers for He Ran All The Way, A Bullet For Joey and Witness To Murder.Final Thoughts:
Big House U.S.A. is a lean and efficient film and while it does occasionally play to the clichés of the era in which it was made, that never harms either its effectiveness or its entertainment value. Kino's Blu-ray debut for the film is a no-frills release and it is sadly devoid of any extras but if you're a fan of the picture it offers a substantial upgrade over what has come before. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.