BIG HOUSE U.S.A. (1955)

Howard Koch directs this Bel Air Productions crime-prison film-noir with everything. Ralph Meeker "happens upon" a rich kid with asthma in the mountains, who'd escaped from a camp before getting a shot, takes him to a tower and tells him to stay put. Then makes a phone call to the kid's rich father, demanding ransom. After the kid dies accidentally (or is he really dead?), Meeker coldly throws the body off a cliff, then collects the ransom and stashes it. Soon after Ralph is busted. No one can prove he actually kidnapped the boy, so he gets an easy five years for extortion. Ralph is called "Ice Man" because he won't admit what everyone knows, and now he has to face a group of cell mates, all experienced criminals who, using their new tenant, escape to the mountains find that ransom. There's plenty of intrigue and just as much action, and the story takes us to several locations, outdoors and in, and doesn't feel claustrophobic like many old prison movies: the title, although pretty neat, is somewhat misleading. Broderick Crawford, Lon Chaney, William Tallman, and a young muscular Charles Bronson play the hardened convicts wielding Meeker as a cog in their wheel, one that never stops rolling till the climactic shootout. A narrating FBI agent, investigating the nurse who caused the kid to initially run off - perhaps not accidental - provides a nifty peripheral to this forgotten fifties gem.

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