Friday, August 13, 2010

Big House, USA (1955)

From AFI:

"At a summer camp in Colorado's Royal Gorge National Park, young Danny Lambert suffers a severe asthma attack after running in a race. Terrified by nurse Emily Evans’ attempt to give him an injection, Danny runs away and is found the next day by a passing stranger. The man, Jerry Barker, claims that he heard about Danny’s disappearance on the radio and takes him to an abandoned fire lookout tower, which he says will be a safe place for the still-ailing boy to wait while he goes for help. Meanwhile, at the park’s headquarters, Chief Ranger Will Erickson attempts to calm Danny’s hysterical father, wealthy businessman Robertson Lambert. Lambert visits the park’s restaurant and there receives a call from Barker, who has already left a note for him that Danny has been kidnapped but will be released for a $200,000 ransom. Lambert agrees to Barker’s terms and promises not to tell the authorities, and later, finds Danny’s jacket in his car, along with instructions about dropping off the ransom money the following morning. When Barker returns to the lookout tower, he discovers that Danny had wandered outside, and the decrepit railing gave way, causing Danny to fall to his death. Barker cold-bloodedly tosses Danny’s body into the gorge, and the next day, Lambert, as instructed, gives the money to a passing, uninvolved motorcyclist, who leaves it at the pre-arranged spot. That afternoon, Lambert, frantic that Danny has not been returned, tells Erickson about the kidnapping, and the ranger calls the FBI. Special Agent James Madden is sent to investigate, while the rangers continue to interrogate tourists leaving the park. When an unregistered pistol is found in a truck belonging to a man named Hanson, the man is brought in for questioning, and his story that he was fishing at a particular lake heightens Erickson’s suspicion because there are no fish in that lake. After a small amount of the ransom money is found in the truck, the FBI in Washington discovers that the man is actually Barker, a wanted extortionist. Despite Madden’s certainty that Barker kidnapped and killed Danny, Barker claims that he merely found the lost boy and took advantage of the situation by demanding money from Lambert. Without either Danny’s body or the rest of the ransom money as proof, Barker is convicted only of extortion, and is sentenced to one to five years at Cascabel Island Prison in the Gulf of California."

And this is only the first half of the movie. The second half of the movie involves Barker and his cellmates Lon Chaney, Jr., Charles Bronson, and William Talman (of "Perry Mason" and THE HITCH-HIKER). You see, they all want a piece of Barker's $200,000, so they're going to break him out, whether he wants to or not. And suddenly it's a prison break film. That's the problem with this film, is that it doesn't have an identity, or it changes identity often. The film starts out from Danny's point-of-view, then moves to Barker's, and then to Madden's, utilizing a voice-over that details the progress of the investigation. It is, at different times, a kidnap film, a federal agent story, a prison film, a prison break film, and a heist movie. but all of this confusion is not germaine to whether or not the film is noir. Does it take us into the psyche of a criminal and detail his journey from light to dark? No. Which is not always the "kiss of death," look at CROSSFIRE, for instance. But while that film transcends the genre by showing us American society as the noir protagonist, this film falls into a pretty standard crime film where the good guys win through hard work and smarts. Entertaining, especially with the cast in prison, but ultimately...

Judgment: Not Noir

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