Open Thread — Noir Side Street: “5 Against the House”

Incoming Day. Photo by Emanuele Toscano.

Today’s selection from Eddie Muller is 1955’s “5 Against the House,” starring Guy Madison (Al Mercer), Brian Keith (Brick), Kerwin Matthews (Ronnie), Kim Novak (Kay Greylek), Alvy Moore (Roy), William Conrad (Eric Berg), Jack Diamond (Francis “Spiegy” Spiegelbauer), Jean Willes (Virginia). Directed by Phil Karlson; cinematography by Lester White. Produced by Dayle Production for Columbia Pictures. Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, William Bowers, John Barnwell, and Frank Tashin (uncredited); based on the novel “5 Against the House” by Jack Finney.

Here’s the film trailer:

As you might guess from the title, “5 Against the House” is a caper/heist style film. To be honest, I don’t see it as film noir, since it lacks the visual qualities that one expects from the genre. However, we do get to see a lot of location scenery in Reno that’s gone now: Harold’s Club, the location of the attempted heist; the car elevator parking lot (Pigeon Hole Parking, which was part of Harold’s Club); and the old buildings on the University of Nevada – Reno campus, which stands in for “Midwestern University.” Thematically, it does have a character making poor choices due to his personal demons in Brick (Brian Keith), but not sure that’s enough to make it noir-ish.

If you want to know what the old University of Nevada – Reno campus looked like, you can do an image search and check out the old postcards that will show up. It used to be a stunning campus, but now… ugh.

As for the story, it begins with four college friends (Korean vets who are attending school on the GI bill) traveling back to the campus of “Midwestern University” (at the time a fictional university) after having spent the summer as ranch hands. During the drive, they stop in Reno, Nevada because Ronnie (Kerwin Matthews) thinks he’s developed a foolproof system to beat the house at craps. His assumption is that he can clean up and be out of there in an hour.

Yeah, that’s gonna work out well!

So the guys head for Harold’s Club, an actual Reno casino. While Ronnie is unsuccessfully and quite openly trying out his system, the others are doing their own thing: Brick is making time with a woman gambler, Roy (Alvy Moore) is trying his hand at the slots, and Al (Guy Madison) is riding herd on all of them, reminding them they only have an hour in their schedule for this side trip to the casino. Ronnie runs out of funds and goes to cash a check at the teller window; he and Roy have the misfortune of just happening to be standing behind a man trying to hold up the place. But when the robber makes his demands of the teller, she steps on an alarm button which notifies the security men who watch the casino floor from above that they have trouble. Their assumption is the two men behind the robber are his backup, so all three are apprehended and hustled outside, where the police soon arrive. Al, who’s a law student, follows them out just as his friends are about to be arrested and demands to know what the charges are. He’s able to explain his friends aren’t involved, and the robber admits he was working alone, so the whole matter gets sorted out. But after the car drives the robber off to jail, the house detective is talking to the friends and says how impossible it is to rob the place.

Damn… you really shouldn’t have planted that idea into engineering student and resident rich kid Ronnie’s head.

And thus we’ve set into motion the rest of the film…

In case you want to watch the film and don’t have TCM, here’s a link on YouTube for it.

If you’re wondering, Novak plays Al’s maybe-sorta girlfriend who’s a bit jaded when it comes to dating college boys and never lets herself get too attached. But Al’s different, since he’s older than the average college kid and knows what he wants from a relationship.

Novak and Keith are the best things about this film, and it’s really no wonder that the movie ends up revolving around them.

All in all, it was enjoyable, but also there’s not a lot which makes it stand out from the typical caper film. For that reason, I give it 3 unfiltered cigarette puffs out of 5.

Next week’s film is 1948’s “Raw Deal.”

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