The Big House

Screening on Film
Directed by George Hill.
With Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone.
US, 1930, 35mm, black & white, 87 min.
Print source: HFA

This pre-code prison picture—I know, you feel like you’ve already seen every prison picture already, but this one is directed with so much visual assurance, charm and bracing characterization!—is fresh as the day it came out of the lab. The great Frances Marion, longtime writer for Mary Pickford, won the first of her two best-screenplay Oscars for this wonderfully plotted crime melodrama. Coen brothers fetish-object Wallace Beery nabbed the lead role of Butch when the already-signed Lon Chaney came down with his deadly throat cancer—and a loveable superstar was born! But the truly arresting performance of the movie belongs to Robert Montgomery as a cowardly young inmate who just can’t cut the prison code and turns instead to snitching. Montgomery possesses such a vast vocabulary of facial expressions for dread, shame, guilt, fear, skulking, sketchiness, horror and worthless pigeonheartedness that when I first saw The Big House I found myself standing up and pointing with horrified self-identification at this astonishing man’s mug! You’re watching the English language version here, but the film was simultaneously shot in German, French and Spanish versions as well; the German was directed by Pál Fejös and starred Gustav Diessl.

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