BADass SINema Unearthed - Blu-ray Review

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema, Volume 1: Big House, U.S.A. (1955)

  • Movie Review

  • Blu-ray Review

  • Art

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema, Volume I - Storm Fear

From stunning, widescreen vistas in Colorado's Royal Gorge National Park to some deftly handled underwater scenes (filmed in Santa Monica, California), Big House, U.S.A. does not disappoint, going dark with the gruesome murder of a kid at the beginning and never looking back as Cell Block D becomes a viper pit of hotheaded machismo.

"Big House, U.S.A. does not disappoint, going dark with the gruesome murder of a kid at the beginning and never looking back"


Concerning itself at the beginning with a ransom gone sideways, Big House, U.S.A. has more going for itself than just Charles Bronson’s rippling muscles.  The brutal film, divided into three parts, acts, at times, like a Dragnet-inspired docudrama before shedding its clothes to reveal itself as a lean and mean prison escape flick as Ralph Meeker, dubbed The Iceman by the press, gets more than he bargained for when he pitches a kid into Royal Gorge.

Starring Meeker as The Ice Man, a stone cold child killer, Broderick Crawford, Reed Hadley, a young (but ripped) Charles Bronson, and the always reliable Lon Chaney, Jr, this black-and-white crime caper, dabbling with some gritty elements of film noir, goes dark relatively quickly as a criminal opportunist winds up kidnapping and then covering up the death of an asthmatic young boy, blackmailing his rich father in the process.  

But that’s just the beginning of director Howard W. Koch’s unsentimental crime flick, now on blu-ray as a part of Kino Lorber’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema, Volume 1 set, which also includes A Bullet For Joey, Witness to Murder, He Ran All The Way, and Storm Fear.  Koch, director of Frankenstein 1970, is only just beginning Jerry Barker’s descent into Hell as he's put in a cell with psychopaths who keep him alive only to get their hands on his ransom money.

Because, when he’s caught, he learns the hard way how not to behave in prison, causing the inmates in his cell block to place bets on who is going to kill him first.  They've done it before and they will do it again.  The prison life is not fit for a mere opportunist like Barker, but the gang takes him with them when they break out.  Only he knows where the $200,000 in ransom demands is, after all.Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema, Volume I - Storm Fear

Film Noir, as a genre in film, stems from the assault of way too many “Happy Endings” in Hollywood.  It’s a natural response full of pessimism and fatalism and, as a result, it butters this reviewer’s bread.  For about a decade, writers and directors could see that audiences weren’t interested in fairy tales anymore.  There was too much poverty; too much death and destruction; too many wars.  And the push to urban life had created an economic disparity that lingered long after any romantic ending did.  

People needed the darkness to be acknowledged and, from 1944 to 1955, it was cinema’s prime celebrity as highly cinematographic films - cheaply made - fell onto the rain-soaked streets of Home Town, USA.  Big House, U.S.A.,now on blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema, Volume I, is merely one offering from that defining era of filmmaking.  

Life in the Lion’s Den is not going to be easy.

3/5 stars

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema, Volume I - Storm Fear


Blu-ray Details:

Home Video Distributor: Kino Lorber
Available on Blu-ray
- May 24, 2016
Screen Formats: 1.85:1, 1.75:1, 1.37:1
: English SDH, French, Spanish
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
Discs: Blu-ray Disc; five-disc set
Region Encoding: Locked to Region A

In this set from Kino Lorber, all 5 films were newly remastered in HD! A Bullet For Joey (1955) When a Canadian police inspector (Edward G. Robinson) investigates a murder, he is hurtled into an adventure involving foreign spies, American gangsters and an explosive high-tech secret that could change the world, co-starring George Raft. He Ran All The Way (1951) John Garfield plays a dim-witted thug who survives a shootout with the police after a payroll robbery. Seeking cover, he meets Peg a lonely young girl (Shelley Winters) who takes him to her family's apartment, while there the paranoid thief decides to take the family hostage until he can escape. Storm Fear (1955) Cornel Wilde plays a wounded bank robber, on the run from the law, he and his gang decide to hide out at his brother (Dan Duryea) and sister-in-law's (Jean Wallace) farmhouse during a snowstorm. Witness to Murder (1954) A woman (Barbara Stanwyck) fights to convince the police that she witnessed a murder. Co-starring George Sanders and Gary Merrill.  And in Big House, USA, Broderick Crawford, Ralph Meeker, Charles Bronson, Lon Chaney, Jr. and William Talman star in this tough and realistic crime drama about a gang of ruthless convicts who execute a successful prison break to secure a $200,000 loot hidden in Colorado's Royal Gorge National Park.


With a crisp black-and-white transfer, Big House, U.S.A. lands on blu-ray thanks to the crackling efforts of Kino Lorber.  Shadows, while not too terribly detailed, are thick and atmospheric throughout. Presented with an aspect ratio of 1.75:1, the film looks marvelous and easily beats the poor appearance on television and on home video DVD that has previously dogged it. The blacks and grays are handled expertly by the transfer.  Beads of sweat are visible, wet city streets, textures in clothing, and even the dirt in the pavement is all visible with fine textures throughout.


Bang! Bang! Bang!  Shots are fired on the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track which accompanies this film noir flick.



  • None

Special Features:

There is only a trailer.

  • Original Theatrical Trailer

Blu-ray Rating:

  Movie 3/5 stars
  Video  3/5 stars
  Audio 3/5 stars
  Extras 1/5 stars

Overall Blu-ray Experience

2.5/5 stars


Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema, Volume I

Joomla SEF URLs by Artio