Okay crime drama until that bogus, anti-climactic ending. Sony's fun Choice Collection vault of hard-to-find library and cult titles, has released 5 Against the House, the 1955 heist suspenser from Columbia Pictures, co-written by Stirling Silliphant (from a Jack Finney short story), directed by Phil Karlson, and starring Guy Madison, Kim Novak, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore, Kerwin Mathews, and William Conrad. An early prototype for the kind of heist pictures that would prove to be so popular in Hollywood from the 1960s on, 5 Against the House suffers today by comparison, with a few creaky performances (I'm looking at you, Madison and Mathews), some unfortunate musical interludes, the rather tame, late-arriving heist leading nowhere...and an evocative backstory that was frankly more interesting than the crime itself. No need to double-dip if you already own this title from the 2009 Columbia Pictures Film Noir I boxed set. An original trailer is included in this sharp-looking black and white, anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer.
Midwestern University buddies Al Mercer (Guy Madison), Brick (Brian Keith), Roy (Alvy Moore), and Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), decide to blow out their last night of summer vacation in the "biggest little city in the world," Reno, Nevada. Arriving at the famous Harold's Club casino, the guys only have about an hour to play before their all-night drive back to school and the first day of fall term. Smooth talker Brick picks up a dish (Kathryn Grant), while mother hen Al keeps everyone aware of the time; however, wise-guy Roy and rich-boy Ronnie get into trouble when they unwittingly stand behind a robber (Frank Gerstle) attempting to boost a cashier's cage. Al convinces the cop (Tom Greenway) that Roy and Ronnie are innocent bystanders, but the cop's sneering assertion that there's no way anyone could rob Harold's gets thinker Ronnie already scheming. Back at Mid U., Al tries the hard sell on girlfriend-turned-torch singer Kay Greylek (Kim Novak), but she's still leery of college boys who want a good time...and nothing else. And poor Brick almost beats to death a boy dating his ex, Virginia (Jean Willes). You see, Al and Brick are older ex-G.I.s, studying law on the G.I. Bill; they both served in Korea, where Brick sustained traumatic brain injuries. As a result, Brick is falling behind, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and he's on a psychological hair-trigger. So...he's probably not the best guy to take along on a casino heist, as organized by Ronnie (who's unaware of Brick's condition), with Roy's cooperation, and with soon-to-be newlywed Al and Kay completely in the dark.
I hadn't seen 5 Against the House since a prof showed it to us in a noir class back in "film school" (yeech), but its location work and Brian Keith's interesting turn stayed with me (as well as an appreciation for newcomer Novak's rather potent erotic aura). Watching it again some 20-odd years later, and after steeping myself in lots and lots of superlative Stirling Silliphant TV writing, I came away from 5 Against the House, oddly enough, wishing they had ditched the heist element altogether. Now, I know a lot of critics and viewers like 5 Against the House, including Martin Scorsese, with some considering it a fairly influential noir (it has elements of noir, to be sure...but I wonder if it's not more accurate to call it a straight crime thriller). And certainly I enjoyed it, just on a purely entertaining level, even when the second and third act gave over to the relatively pedestrian plot mechanics of the heist (that ending, though...). However, I couldn't help but feel that I wanted to watch a movie about the characters' backstory here far more than I wanted to see them boost a casino.
If you love co-writer Stirling Silliphant's Route 66 like I do, then you could be forgiven in thinking that the first 40 or 50 minutes of 5 Against the House was really some kind of long lost episode from that great TV series. With the verisimilitude of the real-life location shooting at the famed Harold's Club in Reno (now sadly torn down), and at the University of Reno, Nevada's Manzanita Lake and Lincoln Hall (now sadly over-developed), and with the emphasis on quirky characters who trade poetic/hipster, intellectualized banter to hide their psychological scars, it would have been easy to combine the four college buddies' lines here and give them to Tod and Buz, laying down some jive at a Reno casino to meet some girls and have another adventure on the mother road ("You must have led a clean life," a cashier says to Guy, who responds, "Yeah, and up to now it's been killing me," as he scoops up some coins from a slot). Back at the college, older students Brick and Al could have been two of the wounded people Tod and Buz always ran into during their travels, the story of not only their unconventional college experience (how about contrasting these battle-hardened vets against their relatively callow buddies?), but also Brick's deep psychological distress, more than compelling enough for a first-rate Route 66 episode. When Brick says everyone has a headache today, living in the "Aspirin Age," and then turns down some pretty girls' invitation for a Halloween party because no one should dance while Little Orphan Annie is still lost, you can clearly hear Silliphant's post-WWII existential, pre-counterculture angst...filtered through wise-assed American pop culture.
Too bad all that goes by the wayside when the heist planning and plotting kicks in, as well as Harry Cohn's commercial considerations when it came to promoting his Rita Hayworth replacement, Kim Novak. If you go by 5 Against the House's ad campaign, Novak was clearly the main selling point for this project, even if her role is relatively small, so that's why we have the two musical numbers (dubbed by Jo Ann Greer), and all that hugging and kissing with cigar store Indian Guy Madison. We never buy the logistics of their romance anymore than we believe that these guys would actually go ahead and agree to the heist as a "field experiment in psychology." It's a good twist to have Keith go off his nut and hijack the heist, but again, we never really believe his threat to kill Al as insurance that they'll all go through with the job, anymore than we buy the mechanics and blocking of the heist.
Tough-guy director Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street, Tight Spot, The Phenix City Story, Walking Tall, Framed) certainly knew how to stage a convincing action/suspense sequence, but quite frankly, the heist in 5 Against the House is kind of, well...dopey. You can allow, I guess, the silly idea of the tape recorder in the money wagon somehow convincing William Conrad that there's a murderous little person inside ready to drill him. However, anyone watching Keith and Madison stick to a shifty-eyed Conrad like glue, walking lock-step with him back and forth through the casino, would yell for the cops in five seconds flat. I normally don't like to nit-pick like that; I'm all for letting movies just happen because the very grammar of movies is completely illogical, anyway. However, when a sequence like this is dependent on its suspense coming from the intricate way it's blocked and performed, it had better hold up to scrutiny...and it just doesn't here. Why does Karlson, in the first shots, introduce that absolutely stunning visual of that super-sweet "pigeon hole" parking garage, with its menacing power lifts and creepy, crypt-like pockets for the cars...and then not use it in any meaningful way later on? The script seems to think it's important, offering some foreshadowing (Keith jokes he died working one during the war), but then it doesn't factor into the heist, or in bringing Keith down.
SPOILERS ALERT! When Keith takes to the top of the garage, and Madison goes to talk him down, we're primed for a classic noir fall from a great height...but no such thing happens. You mean to tell me you're going to set up that visual, and then jerk my chain by denying me the payoff? All I get is Keith crumpling up and crying when Madison brings up the war again? That's my pay-off? How about having Keith pinned and squished in the pigeon hole lifter? After all, they spent so much screen time showing it, isn't that what you expected? Instead, we get a completely zero-sum ending with Keith taken away by the sympathetic, kindly cops, grinning and kicking his feet like a sheepish dope caught pulling a frat prank, while all the "boys," apparently, walk away scot-free―not bad for ripping off a casino. Where's the noir hand of fate, crushing these fools for tempting the gods? Why doesn't someone pay here, for their folly? Good question....
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.