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Revolt in the Big House (1958)

Revolt in the Big House (1958)

Directed by R.G. Springsteen

Produced by David Diamond

Written by Daniel James (as Daniel Hyatt) and Eugène Lourié

Cinematography by William Margulies

Edited by William Austin

Warner Archive DVD (1:19)

You watch a movie like Revolt in the Big House and wonder just what happened… You’ve got Gene Evans, Robert Blake, Timothy Carey, John Qualen, and one of my favorites, Emile Meyer. Okay, so it doesn’t quite have the makings of a prison romp like Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), but it certainly has potential.


The law has been trying to nail racketeer/mob boss Lou Gannon (Gene Evans) for years. The cops finally get him on an armed robbery charge, sending Gannon to a maximum security prison for 20 years. Once there, Gannon runs into Doc (John Qualen), an old acquaintance who tells him that the guy who’s really in charge of the prisoners is one of Gannon’s former boys, Ed “Bugsy” Kyle (Timothy Carey). After a brief meeting, Gannon “convinces” Bugsy to abdicate his position. So far so good. Gannon springs his master breakout plan on Bugsy and Doc, but he needs more help.

As luck (and the script) would have it, Gannon (technically a first-time offender) is given a cell with the young Rudy Hernandez (Robert Blake). Rudy’s in prison for robbery, but he’s focused on a brighter future. He can study, work in the prison garage, stay out of trouble, and get paroled in three years. But Gannon has other plans for Rudy.

Rudy’s story is important, but we don’t need four volumes of his biography, which almost is what we have to sit through. (At some point you expect Gannon to say, “Enough, kid; I got it.” Instead, I found myself saying it.) Although Blake is very good in the role, there’s just too much of it. Conversely, we get little of anyone else’s story, but we’re not talking The Shawshank Redemption here, either. We really don’t need to know much about Gannon; he’s a cold, calculating guy, but he’s also one-dimensional. Also we learn almost nothing of Doc, and probably everything we need or want to know about Bugsy is right there on the screen. (It’s Timothy Carey, for cryin’ out loud; what else do you need to know?)

Although prison officials state at least twice in the film that there’s 1,200 men in lock-up, the posters read “The raging violence of two thousand caged men!” I guess they squeezed in an extra 800 that just made everyone go off the rails… It takes quite awhile for the “raging violence” to appear, but it is pretty cool to see Timothy Carey swinging a gun around, yelling “Happy Birthday, Warden!” But when the breakout finally occurs, we’re treated to some of the slowest, most subdued music I’ve ever heard in a prison movie, almost like we should be watching someone strolling down a country road.

The script was written by Daniel James (as Daniel Hyatt) and Eugène Lourié (primarily an art director rather than a writer), two guys who also wrote The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and The Giant Behemoth (1959). Other than James’s work on Gorgo (1961), these were the only films these guys ever scripted. Even so, the results aren’t bad. These writers were probably affordable, as was director R.G. Springsteen, who directed or assisted with nearly 100 movies (most of them B pictures) and TV episodes in his long career. For a low-budget prison flick, Revolt in the Big House is a pretty entertaining 80 minutes in lock-up. Just don’t get too close to Carey…

(Look for Frank Ferguson as a lawyer early in the film and Robert Mitchum’s kid-brother John in one scene.)

Photos: DVD Beaver

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