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Does the name Howard W. Koch ring a bell? No, he's no relation to Howard Koch, the screenwriter of Casablanca (1942) fame. But he IS the director of such drive-in faves as Untamed Youth (1957), Bop Girl Goes Calypso (1957), and Frankenstein - 1970 (1958). He was also the executive producer on The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and such Frank Sinatra flicks as Robin and the 7 Hoods(1964) and None But the Brave (1965). What? Still drawing a blank? Well, sooner or later, even an exploitation specialist like Howard W. Koch is capable of turning out a gem and his diamond in the rough is Big House, U.S.A. (1955), a gritty little crime thriller that deserves some kind of award just for the casting alone. Here is the ultimate dream cast of B-movie bad guys - Broderick Crawford, Ralph Meeker, Charles Bronson, Lon Chaney, Jr., and William Talman (Raymond Burr's rival attorney on TV's Perry Mason series). A more despicable, unrepentant lot you will not find in another film from the same period. These are villains an audience really loves to hate and they all truly deserve the terrible fates that await them. In fact, it's a mystery how the censors allowed some of the more brutal and sadistic sequences to pass without cuts.
There are actually two plots at work in Big House, U.S.A.. The first one involves the kidnapping of a young boy who is taken deep into Colorado's Royal George Park where he is held for ransom. Without giving away any details, we'll just say that this part of the story builds to a shocking conclusion and then segues into the second plot which involves a prison break from the Casabel Island Prison.
Broderick Crawford steals the movie with his rabid, over-the-top performance as Rollo Lamar, the ringleader of the escaped convicts. In one scene, he takes a blowtorch to a fellow con he's just murdered, burning away his face and fingerprints so authorities won't be able to identify the body. There are other grisly scenes in the movie, including one where a prisoner is scalded to death in a boiler, but the real highpoints are when Crawford double-crosses his cohorts, in particular, Lon Chaney, Jr. The two actors had previously tangled in North to the Klondike (1942) in which Chaney was defeated in a climactic fistfight and he doesn't fare much better in Big House, U.S.A. unless you count being filled with hot lead and dumped into the ocean an improvement. Off camera, Chaney and Crawford got along famously though Chaney would joke, 'Wait'll I get him in the next picture. I'll even things up.'
It was no secret that both Crawford and Chaney had a weakness for alcohol and director Howard W. Koch probably had some real concerns going into production on Big House, U.S.A.. In the biography, Lon Chaney Jr.: Horror Film Star by Don G. Smith, the director recalled that "Broderick Crawford gave us some problems during the making of the film because he drank a lot, vodka. But Lon's drinking never showed because he was good at covering that up. Some actors drink because it gives them courage.' All we've got to say is you might need a good stiff drink too after watching Crawford and company raise hell in Big House, U.S.A., probably the most mean-spirited kidnapping caper/prison break thriller ever made and that's a compliment.
Producer: Aubrey Schenck
Director: Howard W. Koch
Screenplay: George W. George (story), John C. Higgins, George F. Slavin (story)
Production Design: Charles D. Hall
Cinematography: Gordon Avil
Film Editing: John F. Schreyer
Original Music: Paul Dunlap
Principal Cast: Broderick Crawford (Rollo Lamar), Ralph Meeker (Jerry Barker), Reed Hadley (James Madden), William Talman (William 'Machine Gun' Mason), Lon Chaney Jr. (Leonard M. 'Alamo' Smith), Felicia Farr (Emily Evans), Charles Bronson (Benny Kelly).
by Jeff Stafford