Murder in the Big House (1942, USA)

This is much more a newspaper office movie, or a cub reporter movie, than a prison movie, even though it centres on a prison murder. It was made around the time that the US entered World War II, but you wouldn’t know it. Two killers are on Death Row, waiting to go to the electric chair, and it’s their story that captures all the headlines.

The two men, ‘Dapper Dan’ Malloy (Michael Ames) and ‘Mile-Away’ Gordon (Roland Drew), have been convicted of assassinating a newish, crusading District Attorney, who had foolishly signalled to a number of influential city officials that he was about to start prosecuting them for corrupt activities.

Malloy’s execution is scheduled first. He gets a message to reporter ‘Scoop’ Conner (George Meeker) of The Morning News on the day before he is to go to the chair, asking to see him. ‘Scoop’ is the paper’s gun reporter, but an unreliable drunk. Malloy tells him that if he was to go to the chair he would bring down others with him… but he has been assured by his lawyer, Bill Burgen (Douglas Wood), that the Governor has already determined to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment. Burgen has told to him listen to the Governor announce his decision on the radio at 10.15pm the next day.

‘Scoop’ is keen for his front row seat at the execution because he knows that the Governor has no intention of commuting the sentence, and he wants to be there when Malloy starts singing. But he gets drunk, and in his stead young Bert Bell (Van Johnson, in his first lead role), on his first day on the job, finds himself covering the story. The newspaper editor, ‘Pop’ Ainstee (Joseph Crehan), has been too busy (or rather, can’t be bothered) to even meet with Bert, who has no journalistic background, but to whom he has agreed to give a job as a favour. Pop has asked fellow reporter Gladys Wayne (Faye Emerson) to “use (her) own judgment” in relation to what to do with Bert. She does, and drags him with her to the prison while Scoop sleeps it off.

It’s a ridiculously stormy night. Gladys and Bert join a rowdy pack of other reporters already in the prison, waiting for the execution to kick off. The warden, John Bevins (William Gould), interrupts them to announce that the execution will unexpectedly not proceed; Malloy has cheated the chair by being struck by lightning through the window in his cell, and has died ahead of the appointed time. The reporters are taken to view Malloy’s body, as compensation for missing out on watching him die. Bert takes a sly photo and is convinced that the burn marks to his head and feet are consistent with those caused by the chair, rather than by lightning. Back in the office, he convinces Pop that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that Malloy was murdered in the chair ahead of time to stop him ratting on others, and the paper duly runs with the headline, ‘Murder in the Death House!’

In response to that allegation, Warden Bevins, demonstrating a surprisingly generous spirit of truth-finding, allows Bert and Scoop (who has since sobered up) to conduct a thorough investigation in his prison, with full access to and the co-operation of all his staff. (No need for the police to investigate, clearly, when there are investigative reporters around.) On interview, the Death Row guards each insist that Malloy didn’t leave his cell. The priest backs them. The doctor is outraged that his assessment that Malloy died by lightning strike is being questioned. Even Gordon is adamant that Malloy didn’t leave his cell and couldn’t have gone to the chair early. The press men are unable to find any evidence to back up Bert’s suspicions.

Driving back from the prison at night, however, a car pulls alongside the two meddling reporters and shots are fired at them. Scoop is wounded and their car crashes. They manage to get out of the wreckage and while Scoop heads to hospital, Bert goes to warn ‘Mile-Away’ Gordon’s wife, Irene, that her husband’s life might similarly be in danger if the same people also fear him spilling the beans. At her place he’s spotted by the lawyer Burgen, who has just convinced her to leave town on the basis that there will be a public outcry when his sentence is commuted. After gaining entry to the house Bert has trouble convincing Irene that Mile-Away’s life will not be spared and that he faces the same fate as Malloy. It’s then that the penny drops, a little later for Bert than for most of the film’s audience, one suspects; he works out how Malloy was killed. Burgen’s henchman, not taking any chances, fires at Bert at close range through the window to discourage further snooping, but both the reporter and Irene inexplicably escape unharmed. Irene needs no further convincing, though.

That same night the defamation suits start arriving at the News, alleging damage to reputation. If successful, they have the potential to ruin the paper.

The following day Bert and Scoop go back to the prison and see Gordon in the hours before his execution. When the warden takes the throng of reporters to witness the testing of the electric chair, Gordon collapses in his cell, just as Malloy had done. The warden is immediately called for and informs the reporters that Gordon has died, too – ahead of anyone entering the cell and checking the prisoner’s pulse. Hmmm. The doctor’s belated examination of the condemned man finds that he is well and truly alive… which allows Bert to proceed with demonstrating how Malloy was killed, and how it was intended to kill Gordon, as well. He reveals that the radio headphones had been tampered with, and that whenever the chair is tested, 5,000 volts are sent through the headphones. All the killers needed to do was ensure that Malloy and Gordon were listening to the radio when the chair was being tested.

Bert is a hero, the News is vindicated, the writs are doomed to fail, and the warden, the lawyer Burgen and others are exposed as crooks. Hooray! In celebration, Bert and Gladys announce that they are getting married! Ahhhh.

It’s a short film – just under an hour. It’s not a long time for Van Johnson to make his mark… and it’s a pretty beige mark that he leaves, despite being shot at twice and solving a murder. The prison warden is a much more interesting character, outwardly accommodating and truth-seeking while inwardly corrupt, murderous and truth-suppressing. Pop is more interesting; gruff, fiery and devious. Gladys is more interesting; a sassy woman in a male-dominated workplace, holding her own. Even the electric chair is more interesting; commanding considerable attention without ever being seen.

But bigger than Van Johnson’s blandness is the gaping hole in the plot: How would the prison have disguised Malloy’s death had there not been a lightning strike that night? What are the odds of a huge lightning strike at exactly the same time that the electric chair is to be tested? How would you explain Malloy’s injuries if there hadn’t been the convenience of a storm? And how would you explain Gordon dying in the same manner when, presumably, it could not be attributed to another bolt of lightning entering through the cell window? A murder that relies on a bolt of lightning to succeed is a little… far fetched. Absurd, really.

But it’s nonetheless an easy film to watch.

Oh, and the war? What war?




When Van Johnson’s star began to rise this was reissued, in October 1945, as Born for Trouble. Born for trouble? Really?

Posted on July 25th, 2020 at 4:56 pm. Updated on July 25th, 2020 at 4:56 pm.

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