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The 1955 Big House, U.S.A. is one of the toughest and most uncompromisingly brutal films of its era. The plot revolves around the kidnapping of the boy of a wealthy businessman who dies, by accident, after which the man who abducted him throws his body over the cliff and proceeds to extort the ransom money anyway. Clever as he is, the kidnapper-extortionist is caught and tried, but since the boy's body was not found and he did not have the money on him, he's sent to prison but not given a death sentence.
While in an Alcatraz-like prison the kidnapper meets up with criminals even harder than he is. By now he has become famous, known in the press as the Iceman. He is universally despised by even the toughest of the inmates but taken under the wing of a senior, more intelligent than most criminal who is planning to make a prison break, and who also plans to take the Iceman with him, so as to retrieve the ransom money. What follows is even more brutal, as there are more deaths, and while not graphic by today's standards, they are none the less violent and unsettling perhaps because so little is actually shown, so much implied.
The film is made in a semi-documentary style popularized by the TV series Dragnet, and even features narration. Whether it's actually based on a true story I cannot say. The narrator says so, but this may simply be tossed in so make the movie feel more real. One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is that the Iceman, cool customer as he is, is good looking, young and, as compared to his fellow inmats, rather refined. A kidnapper and extortionist he may be, he is not, so far as we can tell, a murderer. There's a moral ambiguity in the latter part of the film as the Iceman comes to seem increasingly sympathetic, and while he's far from a solid citizen he's a far cry from his fellow escapees.
Modestly budgeted, Big House, U.S.A. features several well known actors, many relative unknowns at the time it was released, while others are veteran players: Broderick Crawford, Ralph Meeker, Lon Chaney, Jr., Charles Bronson and William Talman are the main players, and they all give excellent performances. The directing is sharp but not exceptional, the script at times witty, with several good lines and some nice foreshadowing, such as when one character catches a fish, whose size he's proud of, while another takes a good look at it and says "this fish has teeth"! For fans of vintage action pictures this movie is a must see. For what it is, it's flawness.