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The Big House

The Big House(1930)

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The Big House, directed by George Hill from a script by the great Frances Marion, is the original men-in-prison drama. Which is not to say it's the first so much as it is the blueprint for the genre. Produced in 1930 by Warner Bros., which was to become the grittiest of studios in the early thirties with their gangster blasts and scruffy, snappy streetwise pictures, the film gives us social commentary and underworld violence in equal measure.

The first shots of The Big House present the prison as a massive, intimidating, almost medieval-looking compound and usher us inside along with the new guy getting processed: Kent (Robert Montgomery), an affluent kid convicted of a hit-and-run who goes through the system with a dazed look and a shuffling manner. Montgomery has never had the screen strength or presence of other actors in his early performances role but it works perfectly for the spoiled, weak-willed Kent. He's completely unprepared for prison and his ordeal is compounded when he's assigned to a cell with bank robber Morgan (Chester Morris), our leading man and a kind of underworld aristocracy thanks to his reputation as a criminal mastermind, and prison-yard bully Butch (Wallace Beery), who isn't too bright but defers to Morgan.

Chester Morris, a somewhat wooden leading man who later eased into B-movies and played Boston Blackie in over a dozen films, comes off as a slightly tougher Richard Barthelmess, the square guy (by underworld standards, at least) rolling with tough breaks. Beery is at once childish and brutal as Butch, a killer with no remorse who nonetheless hews to the prison code. Morgan and Butch may not always agree but they have each other's backs. Montgomery is nervous and sweaty as the wide-eyed fresh meat and he ignores good advice and turns snitch, illustrating the warning given by the warden in the first scene: "Prison doesn't make you yellow, but if you are already yellow, prison brings it out." I guess we know his predilections. Silent movie veteran Lewis Stone (later famed as Judge Hardy to Mickey Rooney's Andy) is the tough but committed warden and Stone is indeed tough, a disciplinarian with a reformer's spirit. He knows that packing men in ever tighter and tighter is simply putting pressure on combustible elements and it's only a matter of time before everything blows up.

The story is basically a roll call of what will become prison movie clich├ęs. We see the regimentation and overcrowding of the prison, are introduced to the pecking order of tough guys behind bars, shown the culture of bullies and snitches and the prison code of loyalty and retribution. There's a prison reform speech, a frame-up, a spell in solitary, a cafeteria protest that erupts into a food fight, a prison break and a riot that gets way out of control.

The direct, however, is forceful and the presentation is striking. The cells are small and cramped, with barely any room for the men to move about. The mess hall is like a massive dungeon with high, blank walls looming over the inmates, who are packed into the tables lined up in rows and columns with regimented precision. Guards watch over them from on high. It's mealtime in purgatory and Hill contrasts the surface of resignation to the routine with the covert dealings out of sight for the guards below the table tops: close-ups of hands passing weapons and messages, an assembly line of covert dealings that has become part of the routine. The image is echoed at chapel, where the prisoners file in out of duty rather than faith and then distribute guns for an attempted escape. It makes a mockery of chapel as any kind spiritual reprieve.

The central cell block itself is an enormous four-story set with rows of cells stacked high and men ascending and descending through a spiderweb of metal staircases and walkways. An elevator camera passes through the levels and takes in the crowds of men in prison fatigues filing and out with every whistle, and when the riot erupts, the vertical movement enhances the sense of chaos as the violence inflames tempers. Hill has a cast of hundreds at his disposal and when he packs them into a set or the prison year, hemmed in by high walls and guard towers that loom over the men, he shows us exactly the kind of pressure that drives them to violence.

The overall effect is the machine-like ritual and numbing repetition of incarceration and the systematic dehumanization of the prisoners. Even before the opening scene and the impersonal processing of the new inmate, it begins in the credits, which play not over music but the lock-step trudge of marching feet across the prison yard. That beat crunches through the soundtrack of the film, a metronome that picks up with every stage of the prison routine. It's like a ticking time bomb that finally explodes in the riot.

The Big House was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (Wallace Beery) and won Oscars for the evocative sound and France Marion's screenplay. It was previously released as a stand-alone movie on the Warner Archive line. The "special edition" of this release features a remastered edition of the film that is a significant improvement over the previous edition, at least according to those who have compared the two. I don't have access to the earlier release but this version looks quite good considering the age and the era. There's some minor wear, the contrast fluctuates throughout and there are some pops and scratches on the soundtrack, but it is perfectly watchable and you can hear all the dialogue clearly, which is good for a sound film of this vintage. The evocative soundtrack favors atmospheric effects over music and it comes through well.

But the "special" in this edition more specifically refers to the other two films of the triple feature: the French language version, directed by Paul Fejos and starring Charles Boyer as Morgan, and the Spanish language version. Both are shot on the same sets and utilize the same crowd shots, special effects, and even shot-lists and set-ups. The compositions are almost exactly the same, like they were shot on an assembly line production schedule cranking out the alternate versions on the sets in turn with the same machinery but a different shift of workers.

The biggest difference is in the variations of characters brought by the actors and dramatic direction. Fejos seems constrained by the structure here--see his striking Hollywood work in the Lonesome disc set Criterion released last year (a triple feature in its own right) to see his eye for setting scenes and moving the camera--and he's unable to exercise his own eye for composition and camera movement. He and Boyer, however, turn Morgan into a much more charismatic figure, less hard-boiled, smoother and cooler, with a sense of authority that comes from confidence and ease. The Spanish version, from journeyman director Ward Wing (a sometime actor with a couple of shorts and documentaries to his credit as a filmmaker), hasn't the same strength of character (Jose Crespo is a bland, unimpressive Morgan but Juan de Landa makes a strange mix of childlike clown and psychopathic bully as Butch) but the production value and the momentum keep it rolling along. The French and Spanish versions are not quite as well preserved as the original American version but perfectly watchable and acceptable. The English subtitles are actually close captions and include notations on sound effects.

by Sean Axmaker