Révolte dans la prison / Big House (1931, France / USA)

Big House - Charles Boyer as John Morgan and Andre Berley as Butch

Some films are remakes of originals. But from the pre-subtitles era, this French-language version of the classic The Big House (1930) is not just a remake, but the same film, shot-for-shot, with French actors substituted for American. Well, not exactly shot-for-shot; in one of the last scenes, John Morgan (Charles Boyer) has his right arm in a sling, while in the American version (and, for that matter, the Spanish-language version, El Presidio), it’s on his left. Mind you, in the very final scene (taken straight from the original US version) Morgan’s sling has dramatically switched sides. I’m not sure which side is preferred in the German version, Menschen hinter Gittern.

The plot, in short, involves a wealthy young man, Kent Harve (André Burgère), who is jailed for 10 years for manslaughter in a Los Angeles prison as a result of causing a fatal car accident on New Year’s Eve. He is placed in a cell with multiple murderer Butch (André Berley) and fraudster Morgan who have a rock-solid bond, punctuated by regular fallings out.

Kent is watery, insipid and desperate to get out of jail. In a bit of a panic he plants a knife in Morgan’s jacket on the day before Morgan is due to be released. Morgan’s parole is promptly cancelled and he is sent to the dungeon, on release from which he escapes and tracks down Kent’s beautiful sister Anne (Mona Goya) with revenge on his mind… and falls in love.  He is recaptured and sent back to prison a reformed man – intent on going straight for Anne’s sake. He even declines an opportunity to join in on an audacious escape bid that Butch is plotting.

It’s a fair old attempt to escape. Lots of guns, guards taken hostage, access to the guards’ arsenal, lots of casualties on both sides. But the guards have clearly been tipped off about the attempt to rush the gate, and Butch suspects that the suddenly escape-shy Morgan has ratted on him. It is, of course, the lily-livered Kent. Morgan saves the lives of several guards and shoots Butch before Butch can kill him. In his dying moments Butch learns that Kent, whom he had trusted, was the stool pigeon and reconciles with his old mate Morgan. And Morgan is pardoned as a hero, and walks free with his interchangeable arm injury into Kent’s sister’s arms.

This is an extraordinary, epic film (or quartet of films) for 1930-31. There’s plenty of discordant action in those final scenes, but its strength lies in its principal characters. Burgère’s Kent is appropriately pusillanimous, but less unlikeable than Robert Montgomery’s Kent in The Big House. Boyer’s Morgan doesn’t quite match the charisma of Chester Morris’s portrayal. And while I prefer Wallace Beery’s Butch in the American version, Berley’s massively-girthed, childlike, illiterate, murderous Butch is a splendid character.

It’s a shame that the over-the-top action of Butch’s escape attempt slightly tarnishes an otherwise exceptional film. In any language.

Big House #2 - Andre Burgere as Kent Harve Big House - André Berley as Butch and Charles Boyer as John Morgan

Posted on September 19th, 2015 at 10:07 pm. Updated on September 23rd, 2015 at 10:07 pm.

#139 in the Top 500

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