5 AGAINST THE HOUSE gets a pass from a lot of critics, chiefly because it was directed by Phil Karlson, who made a number of impressive crime flicks in the 50s, including three in 1955, this overbaked macaroni being one of them. As a story, the idea is okay, but the carbon-dated dialogue and mostly terrible acting secure laughs rather than excitement. *
Four college pals visit a casino in Nevada on a break. Back at school, one of them hatches a “foolproof” plan to rob the joint. Just as a gag, see, then return the money. Another, with war-related mental problems, goes nutcase and decides to make the job deadly serious. He forces the others, including the girlfriend of one, his best pal, to play along—or else.
Buffered by on-location filming in Reno and near Lake Tahoe, and marked at one point by an insanely dangerous stunt (running across railroad tracks, about one foot in front of a moving train!), it’s a jackpot of lame writing and unformed performances. The smug banter is embarrassing comic-book stuff, the dramatic elements hole-peppered cardboard pulp. The 5 are Guy Madison, Brian Keith, Kim Novak, Alvy Moore and Kerwin Matthews. For a start, fight to dismiss that the guys are pretty unlikely college students (ages ranging 28 to 33); Kim, plausible, but her off-campus chick isn’t a student but a lounge singer.
Now, Guy Madison was a big deal when yours truly was a kid, thanks to his long-running TV series Adventures Of Wild Bill Hickok (which may have begun my lifelong love of fringe jackets), and he notched a couple of hit westerns in The Charge At Feather River and The Command. But watching him from the viewpoint of anyone over five is a challenge: the poor Guy is so monumentally inexpressive that next to him Chuck Norris comes off like Jim Carrey. He plays the common sense leader, who has somehow attracted ‘the babe’.
The babe (#5 against the house) is Kim Novak, 21. She broke big that year in Picnic, but here she’s just decoration, flummoxed trying to fake passion for the wood block Madison (their numerous kissing scenes are notably clumsy), and not showing much more than the hard-to-deny Novakian physical allure.
Brian Keith plays the literally crumbling ‘Brick’, the combat-addled member of the group who takes the dough-play plan into do-or-die land. Keith was the best actor in the quintet, but per script he’s asked to go off-the-wall bananas, and overdoes psychic panic into painful parody.
Alvy Moore is the intended comic relief. The writing for his character is excruciating: you want to sock him, and not stop. His goofiness later found TV fame, being deadpan silly on Green Acres. But he’s nails-to-blackboard in this funny farm. **
Kerwin Matthews made his debut as the brain-boy behind the plan. To be charitable, the lad was learning on the job; he’s almost as flat as Madison. The good looks and stilted but sincere delivery later served him well for The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, which was more believable than this caper.
A gross of $2,100,000 put it 138th on the box-office list. On hand for stray pieces of noir cred are William Conrad, Jean Willes, Kathryn Grant, John Larch, Adelle August and Robert F. Simon. The fool-me-not script was a 3-way con job from Stirling Silliphant, William Bowers and John Barnwell. Mercifully only 84 minutes, more profitably spent at a slot machine.
* Yikes, Ike! Crime alive in ’55—Pete Kelly’s Blues, The Phenix City Story, The Desperate Hours, House Of Bamboo, Violent Saturday, Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Combo, Hell On Frisco Bay, Six Bridges To Cross, New York Confidential, Tight Spot, Killer’s Kiss, Crashout, The Naked Street, Storm Fear, I Died A Thousand Times, Hell’s Island, The Fast And The Furious, Female Jungle, A Bullet For Joey, and finally, fittingly, Illegal.
** The house doesn’t play fair, but we will. After clobbering Alvy Moore, let’s salute him. Like Keith, he was a Marine in WW2, one who made it out alive from the battle of Iwo Jima. To that infernal rite of patriotic passage add surviving small pox as a kid, then polio as an adult. Alvy was married for 47 years until he passed away in 1997 at the age of 75. Mr. Moore gets a pass for 5 Against The House.