Jerry Barker finds a lost boy whose rich father is extorted into paying a ransom for his return but the boy accidentally dies and Jerry goes to prison.
Even though the reasons why are understandable, commerce too often trumps art. Take for example the movie poster for the crime drama 'Big House, U.S.A.', an odd title for a movie since less than a third of it is set in jail and the majority of the story is set within one state, Colorado. Across the top of the poster, which graces the cover of Kino Lorber Studio Classics' release of this 1955 B-movie, it states, "5 Killer-Cons Break Out!" in red letters, drawing attention like a sensational headline. Unfortunately, that gives away a major plot point in the back half of the pictures and the surprises in the story are what make the movie interesting.
The film opens at a boys' camp. A youngster named Danny Lambert has an asthma attack while participating in a race. In the office, Nurse Emily Evans (Randy Farr) chides the counselor for letting Danny participate. The boy get scared by a needle and runs so far away, he gets lost. Traveling through the woods, Jerry Barker (Ralph Meeker) finds Danny the next day and offers to take him back to the camp, but once Jerry mentions how rich Danny’s dad is, it's obvious trouble is afoot. Jerry holds Danny and wants $200k in ransom, but things go wrong,
After getting caught, Jerry tells the authorities he just took a chance when he heard about the boy going missing, but never saw the kid. Without a body, they are only able to get Jerry for extortion and send him to the big house as the audience expects. Once inside, Jerry is placed in a cell with a bunch of heavies, Rollo (Broderick Crawford), Alamo (Lon Chaney sans Jr.), Benny (Charles Bronson), and "Machine Gun" Mason (William Talman). They don't take kindly to kid killers nor do they believe Jerry's story.
Rollo and his gang are planning an escape, but during a botched rehearsal, they allow one of their members to die rather than let the guards find out. With an extra spot open, Rollo decides they are going to bring Jerry along so they can get the ransom money he stashed and then kill him after. What's fascinating is the cons are so desperate to get out (or John C. Higgins' script is so heavy-handed), they overlook the loss of a comrade and don't come to any realization of what that could mean if/when Rollo no longer has a use for them.
'Big House, U.S.A.' is an enjoyable '50s crime drama. It brings to mind 'Dragnet' with its clear distinction between good and bad characters, use of narration, and some of the stiff dialogue interaction between lesser-known actors. While Jerry is in jail, Special FBI Agent James Madden (Reed Hadley) works the case and solves how it began. This is another example of how well the script was written because it doesn’t seem important until it is revealed how important it is. Another highlight is seeing the actors chew up the scenery as criminals. All around, it's a fun movie.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber Studio Classics has released 'Big House, U.S.A.' on a 25GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a standard blue keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.75:1. There's great contrast on display in the forest scenes as bright white and dark shadows mingle together. The film grain looks natural and gets a little busier at the park checkpoint. Depth within the frame is well captured as evidenced by the race scene.
There are minor specks of black and white throughout. Other instances of dirt and damage appear right as Danny runs off, as does a slight jitter. When Jerry and the rangers are going through the back of his truck, there’s weird wavy distortion pattern in the background during the close-up shot. It's as if there’s a screen behind them with light hitting it or maybe the camera lens is catching the image from a backdrop.
The scenes within the prison are dark, but one shot of Rollo above the boiler room looks a little lighter than the rest of the scene. The underwater scenes are murky and intentionally dark and a softer focus helps hide that they were swimming in a tank. Otherwise, the focus is sharp.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio English 2.0 and delivers a satisfactory experience for this low-budget affair. Dialogue is clear throughout. The effects offer slight ambiance and reach their loudest levels with the rumble of the prison's machinery in the boiler room, but those sounds aren’t very loud so the dynamic range isn't very wide. The sound elements are edited together into a pleasing, balanced mix. There's a slight hiss, but it's not distracting.
Fans of '50s crime films should enjoy the plot twists and acting turns in 'Big House, U.S.A', and they should be happy that Kino Lorber has given the movie an HD presentation that accentuates the wonderful black and white cinematography. Recommended.