Starring Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Robert Montgomery, and Leila Hyams
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Entertaining, pre-code prison movie shows aesthetic innovation and complex idea of morality.
When upper class weakling Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) enters prison after a manslaughter conviction, he is placed in a cell with two career criminals: psychopathic gunman “Machine-gun” Butch (Wallace Beery) and thief and forger John Morgan (Chester Morris), who’s as slick as his patent-leather hair. Through Kent’s eyes, we see his introduction to prison life, but the film’s protagonist soon is revealed to be Morgan.
Morgan, played with great charm and charisma by Morris, smartly maneuvers through the vagaries of prison life and Butch’s behavior. Butch, a hulking, sadistic, illiterate brute switches from acting the devoted friend one moment to wielding a knife in the next. He moves instantly from an almost childlike dependence to raging destruction and back. For his efforts, Beery received an Oscar nomination and got his career launched in the sound era. Morris, however, gives the more interesting performance and the one that plays best for modern audiences with expectations of naturalistic acting. Morris counters Beery’s excesses with a quiet calculation, befitting a slippery character like Morgan. Montgomery, who, earlier in the year, turned in a star-making performance in The Divorcee (which also starred Morris), fares poorly here, miscast as a callow, craven youth and misdirected to overact.
Director George W. Hill succeeds in creating a visually and aurally magnificent vision. At the time, sound filming caused limitations for the camera. Shots were forced to be static. Movement was severely limited. The camera couldn’t pan or tilt or angle in any way. Hill uses this lack of movement to his advantage, employing it to reflect the rigidity of prison life. The shots box the characters in, usually with the aid of the interior framing of a doorway or portal. The set design has no arches or curves. Everything is harsh and unyielding right angles, strong horizontal and vertical lines, like prison bars. When the camera moves, it does so in lateral or vertical tracking shots, marching along in overbearing regularity with the prisoners. In the few scenes that take place outside the prison, the set design relaxes, allowing curves and irregularity. For the viewers, the change is liberating—it allows us to understand how oppressive the severe inflexibility of the prison is.
As visually inventive as The Big House is, the sound is the real star. Hill and the MGM studio sound department, led by Douglas Shearer, make the most of the potential of this relatively new advancement in filmmaking. Eschewing a score, the film rings with the sounds of the prison, the clanging of bars, the squawking of inmates, the echoing bang every time a door inexorably closes, the marching of feet—the almost endless marching—until the painful crushing silence sets in.
The sound deservedly won an Oscar, as did the writer, Frances Marion—the first time a woman won in a non-acting category. For modern viewers, some of the dialogue seems corny and the conflicts quaint. Nevertheless, Marion’s story shows complexity that proves rare in many films of the period. The friendship between Morgan and Butch isn’t easily defined—switching rapidly back and forth from violent hostility to genuine affection—only sustained by Morgan’s capacity to understand Butch. Like Morgan, the film itself shows a surprising empathy toward Butch. It gives its hardest censure to the entitled Kent, who fails to adhere to the prison code of honor. Although Kent supports the side of law and order, his duplicity and his self-serving motives alienate the other characters and the viewers. We’re meant to censure Kent, even as we feel sorry for the mad killer Butch, who, at least, is straight-forward. According to the film, there is an honorable way to do good, one that Morgan finds, and the dishonorable way that Kent employs, undermining the morality of his actions.
Leila Hyams plays Kent’s sister, Anne, who develops a romance with Morgan. Hyams is pretty and sweet, but Anne could have been played by any young actress of the time. All that’s required of her by the film is to represent femininity, gentleness, and freedom, which remain out of reach of the prisoners.
That The Big House is an antique is apparent. It can’t be appreciated without making allowances for its age. Nevertheless, due to its innovation and artistry and Morris’s magnetic, natural performance, the film deserves viewing and rewards viewers willing to make those allowances with an interesting and entertaining experience.