TCM ran a mini-marathon last night devoted to Ralph Meeker, an underrated actor who, despite a few opportunities at leading man stardom (Kiss Me Deadly), settled in for a long stay at Character Actor Hunting Lodge with memorable roles in The Naked Spur (1953) and The Dirty Dozen (1967)…plus more TV appearances than you or I have had hot dinners. (One of my favorite boob tube performances of Meeker’s is his turn in the original Night Stalker movie—only because he appears alongside Darren McGavin in a sort of Mike Hammer [movie] meets Mike Hammer [TV] arrangement.) I had hoped last night to be able to make it through Deadly (one of my favorite cult movies) but by the end of Big House, USA (1955) I was ready to pack it in.
I was glad to get the opportunity to see Big House, though. It’s pure cinematic Velveeta, of course, but it’s entertaining all the same. Meeker is Jerry “the Iceman” Barker, mastermind of a kidnapping plot that goes awry when the hostage (Peter Votrian) takes a header off the condemned park ranger tower Barker was keeping him in, ending the kidnapper’s scheme with a sickening splat. Barker’s already got the ransom he demanded from the kid’s old man (Willis Bouchey), but in making his way out of the park he offhandedly comments on his “big catch” of some rainbow trout from a nearby lake—a body of water that was poisoned sometime earlier to kill a virulent fish fungus—and this arouses the suspicions of both the chief ranger (Roy Roberts) and G-man James Madden (Reed Hadley, apparently on sabbatical from Public Defender). Barker won’t fess up to snatching the kid (he got his nickname “Iceman” because he’s cuke as a coolcumber) but the authorities have enough on him to send him up for extortion, so it’s off to Cascabel (Spanish for “rattlesnake”) Island Prison for him.
Barker is not in the running for “Miss Congeniality” at his new home (he’s greeted with “The Iceman cometh” by some inmate who clearly has enough free time to read Eugene O’Neill), where he’s considered scum for taking the life of a child—and the warden (Stafford Repp) has promised to keep a close eye on Barker by putting him in with the prison’s “wormy aristocracy”…which consists of Broderick Crawford, William Tallman, Charles Bronson and Lon Chaney, Jr. Barker’s day-to-day existence in the Grey Bar Hotel is thankfully not focused too much upon (hey...you’ve seen one prison picture, you’ve seen them all) and the story shifts to Madden’s doggedly determined quest to pin a felony kidnapping rap on “Iceman,” which he finally does when events point to the complicity of a summer camp nurse (Felicia Farr, billed as here in her feature film debut as “Randy” but perhaps better known as Mrs. Jack Lemmon) working with Barker (she scared the kid off into rabbitdom by pointing a big honkin’ hypodermic needle at him) in the plot. But before Mr. Super Fed can get to Barker, his prison pals “kidnap [the] kidnapper for the money he kidnapped for,” as Crawford puts it and make a daring prison escape off the island via makeshift scuba tanks. (The men are supposed to be swimming underwater at depths of 3000 feet, but it’s fairly obvious that they’re just tooling around some gymnasium swimming pool with plants thrown in to further the illusion.) From then on, it’s a race between Crawford and Company and the long arm of the law to see who gets to the buried ransom money first.
Despite the laugh-out-loud moments in the low-budget swimming pool scenes (Joe Dante’s Piranha used the same technique and it looks more realistic than this picture) Big House is a lot of fun, triumphing over a paint-by-numbers scenario (by John C. Higgins, based on a story by George W. George and George F. Slavin) with some effective location shooting (in both Royal Gorge and Canon City, Colorado) and first-rate performances by the cast—particularly Crawford, who may not have been a master thespian but can chew scenery with the best of them. Of course, I always get a kick out of seeing Chaney and Tallman in films and in the case of Bronson (and I mean no disrespect)…well, he was born to prison flicks.
Before Big House came on, TCM’s Essentials series showcased Paths of Glory (1957), the classic anti-war film directed by Stanley Kubrick that stars Meeker, Kirk Douglas, George Macready, Adolphe Menjou, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson and Timothy Carey. I’d forgotten how good Meeker was in this film, particularly in that incredible scene where, knowing he’s to be executed for cowardice, he strikes up a innocuous “Nice weather we’re having” conversation with the sergeant (Bert Freed) in charge of the execution preparations before collapsing to the floor of his prison cell, overcome by his uncontrollable emotion at the realization he must die. After Glory, both Robert Osborne and Rose McGowan exhibited a rare display of movie honesty by admitting that while they admired Kubrick’s Glory and Lolita (1962) they didn’t care much for his other films (often considered the ultimate blasphemy among cineastes, who have annointed the director as a god)—a position I myself have stated on many occasions…I think Kubrick’s last truly great film was Dr. Strangelove, and like Osborne prefer the early films like Glory and The Killing (1956). I’ve always been tremendously critical of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film I find both overlong and tedious—and to those people who justify this by saying “Oh, but that’s because you haven’t seen it on the big screen” I reply: “Making it bigger doesn’t make it any less boring.”