Monday, May 12, 2014

5 Against the House - 1955

"5 Against the House" - 1955
Dir. by Phil Karlson - 1 hr. 24 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm as weak and powerless against the allure of a beautiful woman as anyone; I DVR'd "5 Against the House" movie on the sole basis of Kim Novak being in it, and that the description of the plot sounded pretty decent.  You can only scowl at me if you've never been guilty of something similar.

That's what I thought.

So, she's not exactly the star, but she's in in plenty, and as it turned out, this film was a lot better than I was hoping for.  I sometimes get surprised when an older film will take a fairly intense turn; it's not that I expect them all to just be fluff, but there's always a consideration that older films are much less concerned with grittiness and "reality" than some more modern ones.  "5 Against the House" starts off as fluff, but doesn't stay there, and it's a pretty fun ride along the way.

Four college students/Korean War vets decide to hit up Reno before the school year starts, with an agreement that they've all got an hour to do whatever they're going to do, then back on the road.  Brick (Brian Keith) seduces a woman at the roulette table, Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), the rich kid, has blown his wad gambling and has to cash a check for some walking around money, when Roy and Ronnie are mistakenly thought to be included in an armed robbery by the guy in front of them in line at the cashier's.  Al (Guy Madison) clears them before the police can haul Roy and Ronnie off, but not before one of the security guards can brag about the casino being unbeatable, in terms of a heist.  All four of them return to school (the Korean Vet thing explaining why they all appear to be in their 30's), but the security guard's boast has placed an idea in Ronnie's head.  Or maybe more accurately, what he considers a challenge.

"5 Against the House" is a relatively short film, but because it covers so much ground, it feels like a dense movie (although not one that's difficult to get through).  At first, it comes off like a lame college comedy.  Granted, there's a sense of camaraderie between the fellas, but the dialogue and attempts at banter haven't aged particularly well.  Plus, the gang engages in the time-honored tradition of hazing some poor frosh they all call Speaky, who's job seems to be to carry everyone's books, but I have no idea how he found the time to complete his own homework.  What's better is the attempt to quickly establish people's characters.  The initial casino trip goes pretty far, as does seeing how each of the guys stands with whichever woman they were having a fling with when school ended at the previous year.  Brick is something of a ladies' man, intent on playing the field.  Roy hasn't gotten anywhere with anyone (he's the talky runt of the crew), Ronnie's too busy hatching perfect schemes to do anything else.  And Al, he's got a mystery date at a nightclub.  That's where Kaye (Kim Novak) comes in.  Our introduction to her comes via performance, as she's a sultry nightclub singer, which is a recent development.

"5 Against the House" shifts pretty quickly when Brick starts showing cracks in his smooth facade, blowing up at someone who's dating an old flame, and nearly murdering him with a broken bottle.  The next day, everyone's suffering from ennui (which they must've picked up while in Korea), and they declare the need for something new, something more exciting than a panty raid.  Ronnie's wheels start spinning, and he wants to try to rob the Reno casino, but purely in an academic sense.  He doesn't want to keep the money, therefore there being no harm, which the police would surely treat like a college prank.  But this is where the green-eyed devil shows up in Brick; he's been floundering at college in the law program, is barely keeping his act together, and desperately doesn't want to return to the VA, where they would lock him away in a padded cell.  The entire plan is put in motion, and things start getting a lot darker in this film.

 The second part of the film is dark, although since the ultimate goal is to pull off the heist in Reno, you kind of know that things aren't going to get really crazy.  But then again, being coerced into a felony by an armed madman is it's own kind of excitement.  A significant chunk of the film is spent in transit and with Al and Kaye having no idea what's going on.  When the reveal finally comes, Brick goes into full-batshit mode, and he's pretty convincing.  On the whole, the acting within the film is pretty decent.  I definitely could not have handled a full film of genial collegiate banter between the four vets, even with generous helpings of Kim Novak in nightgowns easing the ride.  But in retrospect, it's a good starting point from which the story can launch, and diverge.

And then there's the heist.  Part of what make a heist film fun is not only establishing the challenge, but also setting up ways that it could fail, and then the joy of watching something clever unfold.  This is an early example of a heist film (I don't have a list or anything, but it's a kind of story that would blossom later in film history), and it is fairly clever.  These kinds of movies depend heavily on time and place - deterring thieving morons is an ongoing and developing field.  Here, the challenge is issued, the potential pitfalls put into play, and then we get to sit back and watch, to see what exactly is going to happen.  The last act of this film is a lot of fun, more than ample payback for the silly college stuff.  Plus, there's a great laugh-out-loud moment with the casino employee that's been targeted.

In this instance, my love of seeing Kim Novak didn't lead me astray.  It led me to a surprisingly good, tightly-paced heist movie.  Plus, Kim Novak in nightgowns.  "5 Against the House" isn't a great film, it's a good one, and if you've enjoyed films like the "Ocean's 11" series, or maybe "The Thomas Crown Affair," this is a quality predecessor well worth the hour and a half run time.  I mean, don't you want to take a look at this?

Borrowed from Mike's Movie Projector

3 / 5 - TV (HD)

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