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November 05, 2009

5 Against the House

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A conventional reading of the title would be of "the house" being the casino that the five are attempting to rob. After watching the film, my feeling is that the house could well be the world at large, or at least the social conventions or expectations that cause the five to feel a sense of discomfort. Disregarding that the actors were too old for their roles, and that the planned heist is actually a small part of the narrative, 5 Against the House is really about an unarticulated sense of alienation in mid 1950s America.

In introducing the four friends, Al and Brick are veterans of the Korean conflict. Brick has saved Al's life at the expense of his own, causing Brick to have suffered what the screenplay suggests is a brain injury that has left Brick with a sometimes volatile temper. Ronnie comes from a wealthy family, and seems almost consumed with control both in action and theory. Roy is the joker who seems to mostly be part of the group for comic relief, the get along, go along kind of guy. The four attend "Mid-Western College", a campus so pastoral that it is almost no surprise that the guys are attracted to the dark, noisy allure of Reno and all that it seems to offer. When the four are introduced, Ronnie attempts to keep the others to a set schedule for their first night in Reno, and attempts to beat "the house" with his own calculated plan for gambling. That's Ronnie's scheme at beating the odds fails does nothing to deter himself or Roy and Brick from thinking that they can't rob the casino.

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Even the seemingly most level headed of the four friends, Al, goes against the grain in his pursuit of Kay. A lounge singer, and a self-described "B girl" who is expected to socialize with the patrons of the club where she performs, there is enough to indicate that Kay might not be the wholesome girl next door. The age difference between Guy Madison and Kim Novak works against what is stated in the screenplay, but Kay lets it be known that Al is hardly the first college boy she's been involved with. Again, what is emphasized is the outsider status of the main characters.

The real star of 5 Against the House is Brian Keith as the shell shocked Brick. It is impossible not to also think of Tennessee Williams' character of the same name, with the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also premiering in 1955. This may be purely coincidental as Phil Karlson's film was released in June while the play opened just four months previously, in March. That Keith would play a character named Brick would probably be due to his solid build and red hair. This Brick, though, while physically imposing is revealed to be the most psychologically fragile, the one who causes the greatest damage, and elicits the greatest sympathy.

5 Against the House was one of four films directed by Phil Karlson that was released in 1955. Along with the titles of two of the other films, Hell's Island and Tight Spot, there is a continued suggestion of entrapment and desperation. The characters in 5 Against the House are in a situation of their own making, but it is one based on an intuitive feeling that there is something missing in lives of complacency and resignation to the implied conformity of the times. Brian Keith's Brick is the proxy for America's psychological wounds that will not be healed simply by being ignored or locked out of sight.

5 Against the House was the second billed Kim Novak's last B film, before Picnic firmly established her as one of Columbia Pictures top stars. There are a couple of shots in the film that indicate that even before Novak was truly a star, steps were taken to turn her into an icon. In the scene that introduces Kay, Novak is scene in silhouette in the nightclub where she sings. There is also a shot of Al, played by Guy Madison, entering Kay's dressing room, framed by one of Novak's extended legs. One of the best lines from the film could well be about Kim Novak as about Kay. When Kay informs Al that she is going to get out of her singing dress, smart alec Roy (Alvy Moore) comments that, "she makes that dress sing".

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 5, 2009 12:51 AM


There was some interesting casting going on before this film got made. I do remember that Roddy McDowall was being considered, probably for the part that went to Kerwin Matthews.

Posted by: ARBOGAST at November 9, 2009 03:38 PM