5 Against the House (DVD Review)8 Apr, 2013 By: Mike Clark
Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Stars Guy Madison, Kim Novak, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore, Kerwin Mathews.
Not counting her presto show-up in Howard Hughes’s mind-bludgeoning 1955 Son of Sinbad, this was Kim Novak’s third screen appearance after well-positioned “launch” roles at home studio Columbia Pictures in Pushover and the Judy Holliday-Jack Lemmon comedy Phffft (imagine calling the box office and asking, “what’s playing?” on that one). You can practically hear studio chief Harry Cohn ordering more full-body profile shots of Kim from director Phil Karlson — though I, of course, lobbied to see House at age 8 that same year because Guy Madison (Wild Bill Hickok) was the lead. My relenting mother must have figured the movie was OK to see because it starred a kiddie-oriented TV star whose cowboy persona pushed sponsor Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops on NBC with regularity, so how un-benign could it be?
But what I got was an 83-minute toughie that, even at this formative age, made me something of an early Karlson fan, given that the director’s preceding Tight Spot (also with Keith) had captured my imagination a couple months earlier. House may be least of the four jewels (three minor, one not) that Karlson had in release in ’55 but, as has been noted by others, it anticipated Ocean’s 11 by five years, even if its casino heist takes place in Reno and not the Rat Pack’s Las Vegas. Combat war vets led by Madison are getting a belated college education at “Midwestern” University, and one of them (Ray Harryhausen’s future Sinbad and Gulliver Kerwin Mathews in his screen debut) has come up with a logistical scheme to knock off a supposedly impenetrable money fortress. Well, we’ve heard that one before.
As the going-bonkers member of the group, Keith progressively humors an also shaky idea that begins to take on a life of its own, though stalwart Madison is Mr. Wary from the get-go and never believes the scheme will come to fruition. Rounding out the title “5” are crew-cutted Alvy Moore (later immortalized on TV’s “Green Acres”) and Novak as a local chanteuse at a townie nightspot. Novak’s vocal dubbing here isn’t the most convincing match-up and certainly not as apt as her voice synching a couple years later in Pal Joey.
Madison is less lock-jawed than he sometimes was, and he has a scene here and there that might even be called authoritative. With Picnic and The Man With the Golden Arm following later in the year, House was the last movie Novak made before becoming a full-fledged star. She’s a decorative presence here, though no more so than the late-story visual of the male heist members entering the casino to pull off the caper while decked out in fake beards. One of the studio’s other looker hopefuls (future Bing Crosby Mrs., Kathryn Grant) gets one scene that enables jealous Keith to establish his instability by beating up one of her suitors (it wouldn’t be a Karlson movie without some brutality). Rounding out the director’s ’55 quartet was best movie, The Phenix City Story — and the nasty dose of VistaVision/Technicolor noir Hell’s Island, which would make a good candidate for Olive Films to bring out on Blu-ray. Femme lead Mary Murphy in a slattern’s negligee did a lot for me on TV showings during my adolescence and probably wouldn’t lose much of a nostalgic edge even now.