Nov 13, 2014

Noirvember: 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955) - The House ALWAYS Wins

I can't think of a plot that has been done multiple times in movies over the years yet still remains exciting with each take like the heist film. Banks are one thing but Casinos, well they introduce a whole new set of obstacles. Casinos present so many interesting elements that can you blame a criminal for wanting to take on the challenge? There is so much money flowing through them at all times - much more than banks - that the takes are higher but so are the risks. They operate 24/7 and are usually packed, and given that they have such a high cash flow in and out and already attract a somewhat shady customer (a.k.a. gamblers), the layers of security are ironclad. In addition to the army of officers walking the floor there are employees with binoculars in the rafters looking through two-way mirrors for thieves and cheats (in the modern age of course, this is replaced with high tech cameras). The heist picture allows for that great mandatory scene where the criminals outline all the elaborate steps they have devised to beat the system and 'get away with it.' The very idea that a gambler already is up against stacked odds that favor the house is amplified with the criminals taking on the house in a much bigger fashion. It is the ultimate gamble.

Harold's Club in Reno is the 'House' the 5 are up against
5 Against the House is a Film Noir released in 1955. It came 5 years before the original Ocean's Eleven, and 6 and 8 years respectively before the births of George Clooney and Brad Pitt who would successfully rob Vegas casinos in the 2001 Ocean's Eleven remake and subsequent sequels Ocean's Twelve and Thirteen (also notable was the 2000 John Frankenheimer caper Reindeer Games, notable that is for being a bad film).

Wannabe robbers Brian Keith, Alvy Moore, Guy Madison and Kerwin Matthews

The picture starts out innocently enough with a group of four college friends making a pit-stop in Reno on their return trip to 'Midwestern University'. The group is comprised of the sensible Al (Guy Madison), ladies man Brick (Brian Keith), egghead Ronnie (Kerwin Matthews) and funny guy Roy (Alvy Moore). They spend their time at the exclusive 'Harold's Club' where Brick easily seduces a lovely lady, Ronnie and Roy lose at gambling and take note of their observations around the casino and Al reminds them about how much time they have before they need to hit the road. Ronnie and Roy are arrested when the 'eye in the sky' picks up a robbery in progress and they are mistaken as accomplices. Ronnie perks up when one of the officers claims that there is no way that Harold's Club can ever be successfully robbed. Al gets them out of trouble and they return to college.

Guy Madison tries to keep PTSD vet Brian Keith in check
Brick is a Korean war veteran who suffers from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and in one scene it is triggered when he gets into a confrontation over a girl. Al is the only person in the group aware of his condition and tries to convince him to get more treatment but Brick is adamant that he can get through this. College life goes on as Al romances his Nightclub Singer girlfriend Kay (Kim Novak - well done Al, well done!), Roy practically enslaves a freshman to do the group's bidding and Brick gets bored wanting more out of life. He also feels that his time at war and in the hospital has stolen lucrative years from him that he can never get back. Ronnie has never let the Reno incident go and has come up with an elaborate 'foolproof' plan to rob Harold's Club. He has designed a replica of a money cart complete with tape recorded threats inside, and the plan is to execute the hold-up just for kicks and return the money after. Roy and Brick are on board but they know that Al is too straitlaced to go along with it (even though they absolutely need him for the plan to work) so they decide to get him involved but not tell him until the last minute. With the plan set, Kay and Al decide to get married during this trip to Reno and the 4 against the house turns into 5.

Kim Novak as Kay
This is the point where things get weird - well beyond the idea of knocking off a casino for 'kicks' with a member of your 'gang' not even knowing what he's involved with until the last second. There is some sort of festival happening in Reno where people will be dressed up like cowboys, so the opportunity to wear a disguise is dropped right in their laps. I mean in a town full of casinos and the streets flush with money, it makes sense to have a celebration where people walk around with holsters and fake guns. Al clues in that something is up on the way to Reno and then tries to put an end to the scheme but something triggers in Brick and suddenly he's holding his friends at gunpoint. He's going to make them go through with it, and there will be no giving back the money. They either join him, or he will kill them and thanks to his PTSD which Al makes known to the others, they believe him. The heist involves them walking around in silly cowboy outfits and accosting roaming cashier William Conrad and getting him to play ball by making him believe there is a smaller sized man inside their homemade cash cart that is ready to come out blasting if he doesn't do what they say. They do this with the aforementioned tape recording hidden within the cart. There is also the very real gun trained on him by Brick, but still you think he would figure out that they were pulling a fast one when he pushes the cart and it doesn't have any of the weight of a grown man - even one standing at just 5 feet as they claim. Now if this were the 2001 Ocean's Eleven, that picture did indeed have a smaller man who could contort and fit in smaller locations as part of their team which makes me think that perhaps they got the idea for that from this film. There is also a scene where the friends go to elaborate measures to clear their vehicle and items of fingerprints but then don't wear any gloves afterwards - including when they handle the cart which they intend to leave behind - so essentially they clean off their fingerprints only to turn around and leave more. It's a messy plan which matches the experience of the characters carrying it out, but also makes the picture hard to swallow.

Brian Keith as Brick is a real ladies man
As a Noir this is an offbeat picture with more humor and kibitzing among the protagonists than we're used to from the genre. In many ways they could almost be cast in an 80s teen comedy like Real Genius by the way they interact and think. Think of this as kind of a Revenge of the Nerds Noir style. The difference here of course is Brick, the war vet on the verge of losing his mind. The moment Ronnie introduces the idea of the heist we all know things will go wrong, but foreseeing Brick turning on them is not one of them. He does it with such a calm demeanor that it makes him more menacing. Keith is so likable too that it's hard to accept that he is so willing to turn on his friends, but you believe that he will shoot them if push comes to shove.

Kim Novak as Kay in Reno
What starts out as a light-hearted romp turns serious in the only way a Noir picture can with a serious portrayal of PTSD and a heist that goes horribly wrong. Usually we're rooting for the criminals to get away with it (I was in both The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing anyway...) but here is a group of guys (and a woman) in way over their heads.