5 Against the House, a heist flick with some solid potential that's also weighed down by a lot of dead weight.
Heading back to a new semester at Midwestern University, four college students and friends -- Al (Guy Madison), Brick (Brian Keith), Roy (Alvy Moore) and Ronnie (Kerwin Matthews) -- stop in Reno to gamble a little at Harold's Club, a famous casino. They witness a botched robbery, overhearing a police officer mumble that no one could rob the place. As the semester wears on and things get boring, Ronnie comes up with a unique plan to do just that though; rob the place. His intention? Prove he can pull it off, then return the money (smart, huh?). Al is less than interested, focusing more on fiance Kay (Kim Novak), Roy goes along with it too a point, and Brick....well, Brick has his own plan.
From director Phil Karlson, this is an odd little movie. Comparing it to a Happy Days heist movies isn't fair, but that thought certainly crossed my mind as I was watching this quick 82-minute movie. There are good and bad -- like any movie I suppose -- but the bad is real bad. As we meet this foursome of friends, we're introduced to them through a nauseating and never-ending set of one-liners, most delivered by Moore. Madison walks around a casino telling them what time it is until they leave. Billed as a late film noir entry, it just ain't that type of movie. It's too light and fluffy early. The jokes are not only forced, but more importantly, just not very funny.
There's more to poke holes at, but that's the worst offender. The others involve two subplots, one more painful than the other. It's a heist movie, right? Then why is so much time spent on Al and Kay's budding romance? In one of her early roles, Novak looks great and sings two songs (sort of, she was dubbed for one), but she doesn't have chemistry with Madison at all. They fight, they kiss, they fight, and then they're back in love. A romance subplot is fine with me as long as it adds to a movie, not detracts from it. Anytime these two are on screen, it's a slow, halting trip. The other subplot has Roy and Ronnie convincing a freshman, Francis (Jack Dimond), to work as a servant-slave. Oh, those 1950s hijinks! It's just another example of the trying too hard, very forced and very unfunny humor that's jammed into the story.
So that gets the negatives out of the way, and we're onto the positives! Madison and Keith were 33 and 34 years old respectively when this was released so how do they come off as college students? Less than believable, but a key subplot involving them helps cushion that age difference. They're both veterans of the Korean War, Keith's shell-shocked Brick suffering through some version of post-traumatic stress disorder, Madison's Al doing his best to look out for a friend who saved his life. The relationship between the two "college students" is a high point of the film. Madison wasn't a great actor, but playing alongside Keith, they have an easy-going patter back and forth that reflects their history. Now if more time was spent on this aspect of the story, now we're onto something.
And then there's the heist aspect. In 1955, this is an early example of a heist film, and judging 'House' on that alone, it's a pretty solid movie. It was clearly an influence on the original Ocean's 11, released four years later. The heist is basically one big con job, pulling the wool over the casino's eyes while they steal away with the money. As part of a western fest, the quartet dress up as cowboys -- boots, beards and hats all -- to "blend in" with the rest of the clientele. Like much of the movie, the heist is low-key, but that doesn't away any of the tension. We're not sure exactly the details of the job, but we've gotten enough hints to see what's going on. As well, the film has several very cool on-location shots of mid 1950s Reno, a window, a time capsule into a very cool time in American history.
In the end, 'House' is a flawed venture. When it works, it's slightly above average. When it doesn't work, it struggles to maintain any pacing. Too bad a more pointed, heist-driven story with less romantic subplots couldn't have been used.
5 Against the House <---trailer (1955): ** 1/2 /****