27 September 2013 | MartinHafer
One of the great prison films.
Over the decades, there have been tons of prison films. Most are pretty entertaining, however, a few, such as "The Big House", are great films and must be seen by serious film buffs. It's not surprising that this film took the Oscar for Best Writing, as Francis Marion's script was the biggest reason this film was so good. It also didn't hurt that you had three exceptional actors (Chester Morris, Wallace Beery and Robert Montgomery) in the leads as well as George Hill's wonderful direction. While Beery was the one who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, for me, the best performance in the film was Montgomery's--he played his part with an amazing intensity you just need to see. As for Morris, he was, as usual, very believable and professional.
The film begins with Kent (Montgomery) arriving in prison. He doesn't feel he belongs there--after all, his killing a person was just an accident, as he was drunk! However, the warden (Lewis Stone) will have none of this and tells Kent he's earned ten years in prison. Through much of the early portion of the film, Kent felt very sorry for himself and kept asking his family about an appeal. I really felt annoyed at this, as Kent seemed to only think about himself and showed no remorse at all. Fortunately, the film did NOT paint him as a victim but as a spineless little jerk--and as the film progresses, you see just how spineless and evil he could be.
Kent has two cell-mates. Butch (Beery) is a sociopathic bully who pushes everyone around except for Morgan (Morris)--and Morgan is the third man in this cell. As for Morgan, he's tough but there is also a certain decency about him and although Beery got the Oscar nomination for Best Actor, clearly Morris was THE star in this film and the movie mostly focused on this guy. As far as what happens next, I really would rather not discuss this as it is just better if you see it for yourself.
As I said above, Montgomery was the standout in this film. His terrified look and pusillanimous body language were great. While he's not usually thought of as a great actor, here in one of his first films he is mesmerizing. The other two are also wonderful--and Lewis Stone is wonderful as the tough but very reasonable warden. But, if you see the film, you'll also realize that the biggest star really is Marion's script. The film is gritty and realistic without being bogged down by clichés. I also loved the direction, as the camera angles and almost film noir-like camera-work really were striking. Well worth your time and proof that early talkies could be just as good as anything made today.