The Painter and the Thief
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Prison films from this era tend to serve as social dramas hoping to be Oscar bait that involve an innocent man trapped inside a prison system where he is mistreated before escaping and falling in love with a nice girl. This film had many similarities to the later I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) but it tried to expand the scope of the story with many supporting characters and a little more moral complexity than that film. I found myself liking the film even as I had low expectations for it and due to it's brief running time and some surprisingly involving conflicts I think this earned the critical acclaim it received at the time.
Kent, Robert Montgomery, is imprisoned due to drunk driving charges and believes himself to be innocent but he finds himself struggling to fit in at an overcrowded prison. He is roommates with the violent, mercurial Butch, Wallace Beery, and the friendly, fatherly Morgan, Robert Montgomery, but both are members of a clique established in the prison that Kent cannot break into. Kent decides to become a stool pigeon to try to get out of prison early and when Morgan is to receive parole early for good behavior he plants a knife in his bed and has him sent to solitary confinement. When Morgan gets out he fakes an illness and escapes, finding Kent's sister Anne, Leila Hyams, and falling in love with her before he is found and taken back to the prison. Butch has been planning a mass prison escape while Morgan is away and when he arrives back at the prison suspicion is directed his way. He tries to warn the prison guards of the conflict that will arise but they do not listen to him and violence breaks out.
One of the major issues with the film is the image quality as unlike other notable films from this era it does not appear to have been restored and so it appears blurry throughout. The cinematographer also appears to have done a poor job of framing as actors will regularly have the tops of their heads cut off or bounce in and out of frame. This occasionally took me out of the film as it was hard to make out what was occurring at some points and at many points where Morris was delivering a dramatic line of dialogue I suddenly could not make out his eyes. This also took away from the set design and cinematography in place as there were some impressive shots, such as the tracking shots of the prisoners passing guns back and forth, that were compromised by the fuzzy image. Here's for hoping that this film does receive some sort of restoration soon as I would like to see some of the imagery in the film clearly.
The film also includes an unnecessary interlude in which Morgan escapes from prison and falls in love. This was entirely unnecessary as we already supported Morgan and trusted that he was morally in the right so it was not correct to take him out of the prison environment in an attempt to make the audience care about him more. This section of the film takes you out of it as a big part of the tension of prison films is drawn from the inescapability of the situation the men are in and seeing a man go free halfway through stops this tension from existing. Add in the fact that the Morgan, fascinating while in prison, becomes generic when interacting with his equally standard love interest and you have a big old dead weight in the middle of the film. What could have elevated the film was leaving Morgan in prison and having the aftermath of Kent's betrayal dealt with but instead the film takes the easy way out and gives the audience a plot contrivance that feels forced and lacking in excitement or intrigue.
The fun of the film comes with the scenes inside the prison as the dynamic between the three roommates is fascinating and the double crossing has some real shock to it. Montgomery is well cast as a less than intelligent villain and Morris proves to be more capable than he appeared in Alibi (1929) while Beery relies on the same old shtick he employed in a lot of his other roles. For people who love the work of these actors this film will be a real treat.
The Big House is a very influential early prison flick as it features most of the archaic plot points we'd come to know very well by now. The first half is much more interesting than the second half, but this Oscar-nominated film is quite well scripted, recorded and particularly well acted with the standout being Wallace Beery who portrays the most interesting character here. It's clunky at times, but it succeeds thanks in large part to its strong dialogue, emotion and character interactions.
***Spoilers ahead, Maybe?*** Since I like old black & white prison movies so much I expected to like this movie as well but I couldn't get into it.For me it was just OK.Right from the start I felt like I was watching it just to be watching it.Things didn't get exciting until the very end with the failed escape & shoot out.It was the only time I was able to get into the movie but there was only like 10 minutes left so it really didn't matter.During the riot I can't believe they brought out a couple of tanks.I was NOT expecting that.It had me wondering if there were ever any actual prison riots where tanks were used to bring the prison back to order.A thing I thought that was interesting was the inmate that escaped, went straight on the outside & seemed like he would've stayed that way if he wasn't captured & sent back, fell right back into place on the inside, the inmate who I thought would never let prison change him, ended up changing in the end & the main inmate you knew there was no hope for, was never going to change.I'm not sure The Big House is a movie I'd recommend.It got alot of good reviews but I just wasn't into it.It's something you'll have to see & decide for yourself
The Big House, released in 1930, is considered by classic film fans and film historians to be the first realistic prison movie produced by Hollywood. MGM production chief Irving Thalberg sent screenwriter Francis Marion to San Quentin State Prison to observe real prisoners, guards, and conditions inside prison walls. She interviewed inmates and prison staff alike. The result was a screenplay that won Marion the Oscar for Best Writing, making her the first woman to win a non-acting Academy Award.
The Big House stars Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery (who also appeared together in The Divorcee), and Wallace Beery as cellmates. Each handles prison life in a different way. Robert Montgomery plays Kent, who has just begun a 10-year sentence for killing someone while driving drunk. He is put in a cell with Morgan (Chester Morris), a thief on the verge of parole, and Machine Gun Butch (Wallace Beery), a ruthless multiple murderer that runs the cellblock. Beery had been out of work for more than a year when cast in The Big House. Though Beery had been a successful character actor during the silent era and done a successful sound test, his contract was dropped by Paramount when the studio converted to sound. Beery's performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and his career rebounded.
Directed by Francis Marion's husband, George Hill, The Big House is well paced and well shot. The lighting design of certain scenes with low light and harsh shadows is reminiscent of Film Noir, a subgenre that is defined in part by its use of shadows and antiheroes that wouldn't be fully developed until the mid-1940's. As Morgan is marched from the cell block down to the dungeon for solitary confinement, the light fades and shadows envelope the frame. Morgan and Butch, also in solitary, call out to each other over the shouts, screams, and singing of the other inmates. All we see is the empty, dark hallway as the scene slowly fades out.
There is a brief respite from the bleak drudgery of prison life when Morgan escapes after losing his parole. He visits Kent's sister, Anne, with whom he has been infatuated since seeing her picture. Anne goes from being suspicious of Morgan to falling in love with him rather quickly. It is his brief time with her that convinces him to go straight after he's captured and taken back to prison. When Morgan won't go along with Butch's big escape plan, Butch thinks that Morgan has turned into an informer. The climax of The Big House is a full-blown riot and shootout between guards and prisoners. Each side has pistols, rifles, and Tommy guns. At one point army tanks roll into the fray.
The performances all around are pretty good. The first character we meet is Kent as he is being processed into the prison. As he unravels and buddies up to the prison's main informer, Morgan emerges as our sympathetic hero. Montgomery is great playing a character that is not cut out for prison, scared, and just trying to get by and get out, misguided as he might be. Chester Morris is quite good as Morgan; when he decides to go straight we believe his change. The warden, played by Lewis Stone, is also an interesting character. Neither cruel nor corrupt, he is a reasonable, benevolent man. He sees clearly the problems of his prison and the prison system as a whole, but is powerless to make any changes to better the situation. He tells a guard that the prison was built to hold 1,800 men but has 3,000 prisoners. They want to lock them up, he says, but don't want to provide for them after they're locked up. The guard replies, "The whole prison system is cock-eyed." The flaws of the prison system that Francis Marion observed and wrote into her screenplay in 1930 still remain unfortunately accurate.
Douglas Shearer, Norma Shearer's brother, won the first Academy Award for Sound Recording for his work in The Big House, and the sound design is very good and effective indeed. The first thing we hear is the sound of marching footsteps of prisoners. That sound is repeated throughout the film, and it is also the last thing we hear over the "The End" card instead of closing music. The footsteps on hard floors and gravel, food slopping on plates, and crowd noises are all pronounced and important to the effectiveness of the images. The sound cues in The Big House do more than just match what happens on screen, they underline and emphasize it. The shots of dozens upon dozens of prisoners marching in line, often from the shoulder down, or filling the mess hall, sitting at the same time, being served at the same time, all wearing the same uniform and making the same sounds suggests that humanity and individuality have been stripped away from these men.
I think The Big House is as realistic as a film of this time could be, even during the Pre-Code era. The Big House probably would not hold up to more recent prison dramas, but it is still an entertaining film. It has good performances from all the main players, great cinematography, a great screenplay, and even a dark sense of humor. Morgan warns Butch against including a certain violent prisoner in the escape, but Butch replies, "sure, Hawk cut his mother's throat, but he was sorry about it."
The Big House has every prison movie cliché you would expect to see in a prison movie: escape plans, stool pigeons, riots, cruel guards, bad food. However, like many genre films from this time period, it is the source of those clichés. All of the beats and plotlines still work and are still effective and entertaining.
Starring Robert Montgomery and Wallace Beery. Montgomery is very good cast against type as a drunk driver convicted of manslaughter who loses his individuality behind bars. This is truly the definitive prison picture -- unrelentingly damning in its portrait of the penal system, all the hallmarks are here from the requisite riot to the sadistic warden. Superbly photographed to illustrate with great fluidity the anonymity and claustrophobia faced. convicts. Wallace Beery is his typical, tough-as-nails self as Montgomery's violent cellmate; Lewis Stone is fine as the warden. Only an unnecessary but fairly typical romantic subplot drags the action down a notch. Directed by George Hill, who at the time was married to screenwriter Frances Marion.
The great granddaddy of all prison films. This film set the standard and many of the tropes of prison films for years to come and still holds up as a tough, gritty film.
yet another prison movie like 'brute force' or '20,000 years in sing sing"
Watching old gangsta movies & they are just as good if not better than the ones from these days, This is 1930!!!
Prison break film from 1930. Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery were excellent. Wallace Berry unforgettable and comical at times. Great script. Loved the slang used by the inmates. Gives you a good glimpse at what prison life was like back then. Loved it.
Still very entertaining tale of prison. Robert Montgomery is Kent, a young man just sent to prison for manslaughter. He gets thrown into a cell with the two toughest guys in the joint - the more cerebral Morgan (Chester Morris) and tough guy Butch (Wallace Beery). Lewis Stone plays the Warden, who wants to do what is right. After Kent double-crosses Morgan causing him to lose out on his parole, Morgan escapes and seeks out Kent's sister, Anne. The two fall in love. But there is much more to this film. Sure there is the typical cheesy acting attributed to this period, but the writing of Frances Marion is well-researched and the dialogue far better than many films of the era. Wallace Beery is perfectly cast as the tough heavy Butch who has had enough of the joint. The original prison movie and still highly enjoyable.