Thursday, July 23, 2009

"5 Against the House" - 1955

“5 Against the House” (1955) delivers social commentary in the guise of a robbery plot, sometimes on purpose and sometimes without seemingly meaning to, which is an intriguing accomplishment, to be representative of an era and yet stand apart from it objectively.

“Everybody’s got a headache today,” Brian Keith grumbles, “We’re living in the Aspirin Age.” It’s an exemplary line in a film with a constant patter of snappy dialogue. He’s just planted a label on the mid-1950s. No quick aspirin fixes for him, though.

The “5” of the title are Brian Keith, Guy Madison, Kim Novak, Alvy Moore, and Kerwin Mathews. The men are all roomies at college, and Miss Novak is the girlfriend of Guy Madison. All the men are preparing for future careers, and the lady, a townie in this Midwest college town, just started a new career as a lounge singer, teetering on the brink of commitment to marriage with Guy Madison. Despite these plans, or hopes, for the future, all are a bit stuck, floundering in static lives. The ennui will lead them to an attempted casino robbery.

It’s an interesting premise, and we build to it slowly. One of the many writers on this film was Sterling Silliphant, a prolific writer in TV’s “Golden Age”, films, and novels. One of his many notable projects was “Route 66”, and at times this movie reminded me a little of the style of “Route 66” or some similar character-study episodic TV drama show of that era.

The film begins with the boys having a last night on the town in Reno at “Harold’s” casino, having finished their summer jobs on a ranch and will head back to college for the beginning of the semester. They watch an attempted robbery foiled by the casino guards, and this gives Kerwin Mathews, who plays the rich boy with brains but little maturity, an idea that it would be fun to rob the casino in The Perfect Crime just to see if they could get away with it. He tinkers with this notion throughout the film, but at first we pay little credence to him because he seems so flighty and boyish.

Alvy Moore is the wisecracking clown of the group, with a quick line for every circumstance, but when the stakes are raised toward the end of the film, we see his smart mouth is just a cover for a very frightened person, with very little will of his own.

Brian Keith and Guy Madison are older than the other two. They are Korean War vets, attending college on the GI Bill. Madison, now at least a decade into his acting career, has matured from his earlier youthful appearances (“Since You Went Away” and “Till the End of Time”) of almost jaw-dropping boyish beauty into a rugged, near William Holden look-alike, but without Holden’s talent. However wooden Madison may still appear, he has achieved a quiet authority and plays his part well as the hardest working, most mature of the pack. His character nearly died in Korea (pal Brian Keith rescued him), and now that he has a second chance at life, Madison means to grab it with both fists. He has more drive and ambition than the others, and one of his goals is to try to get Kim Novak to marry him. She is hesitant, because commitment frightens her, and this is Madison’s particular frustration.

Brian Keith, such a fine natural actor who has so much commanding screen presence to spare he could bottle it, plays perhaps the most disenchanted member of the group. We do not see it at first, because he is so cool and calm, charming women at the casino bar, rolling his eyes at the boyish antics of Moore and Mathews, but soon we see there are cracks in his façade.

While saving Madison in the war, Keith suffered a head wound. We are still in the movie age where head wounds automatically infer evil and/or crazy. This is where we are headed in this film, but with unusual and unexpected sympathy for the vet who breaks into violent rage and beats people up, for the vet who sells out his best friend and threatens to kill him just for money.

The casino scenes are absorbing to watch. Lots of extras pulling at one-armed bandits and clustered around roulette wheels. There is such a natural feel to these shots, one wonders if the extras were actors or if a hidden camera was used.

Another character is introduced into the gang, a hapless freshman whom they haze, turning him into their houseboy. Though it seems odd that two more sophisticated and world-weary men like Keith and Madison would put up with or abet this kind of college-boy hijinks, the frosh boy does serve some purpose to round out exposition. It is he who tells us what he heard about the war careers of Keith and Madison, and it is he who lets us know that the younger two were not involved in the war, providing more social commentary and insight into the mid-1950s.

“Were you two guys in Korea?” he asks. Moore and Mathews feign insult, accusing their slave of inferring that they are cowards for not going to war.

“Are you questioning our patriotism?” This is interesting, turning talk of commitment or non-commitment to military service into a comic routine. Only four years before in “I Want You” (1951) -- see previous post here, the resentful Martin Milner regrets not being old enough to fight in World War II and moans, “It’s not my fault I was born in 1931.”

No longer any regret about being too young to fight in a war. Now there is only relief. In such gossamer ways do eras turn.

But though the Korean War, now two years past, is ancient history to these boys, its repercussions still linger for the Keith and Madison. When Keith nearly kills a young man in a blind rage, Madison drags him back to the dorm room, where Keith confesses in tears that he does not want to go back to the VA hospital for psychiatric treatment, where they “treat you like an animal”, though Madison reminds him, “a lot of guys went through shock like you did.” Without too much explanation, we are meant to infer he went through electroshock therapy, still the subject of lurid thrillers at this time.

We see the tight relationship between the two men; that close, brotherly bond between men who have been through battle. Madison gives Keith a sedative and puts him to bed, and we see that Madison is the caretaker, while suave and cool Keith is really the most needy of the gang.

Madison carries scars from the war too, but his seem to give him drive to get things done. When Miss Novak complains that their relationship is moving too fast, Madison replies, “I’ve been places where if you didn’t make up your mind in a hurry, you never got a second chance.”

She gently reminds him that he has all the time in the world now. “Honey, you’re not in Korea anymore. Nobody’s going to drop a bomb on you.”

This is somewhat reminiscent, but a different delivery and intent, to the line Virginia Mayo gives the struggling Dana Andrews in “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) - see previous blog post here - when she exhorts him to forget his war troubles and “Snap out of it.”

It’s the Cold War now, and no big public whoosh of relief came with the armistice in 1953. Wandering back to his dorm, another classmate asks Keith if he will go to the Halloween Dance, and he replies in another of this film’s unexpected comic send-ups:

“I wonder if now is the time when any of us should be dancing, when we don’t know if
Little Orphan Annie’s ever going to get back to Daddy Warbucks.”

Alvy Moore replies in deadpan woe, “She’s just got to!”

We are in the middle of what one day would be called The Silent Generation, marching in lock-step with the neighbors, but not knowing why, dogged by doubt and television aspirin commercials, and ennui.

When the plan to rob the casino gels, it gets its legs from Keith, who is a poor student and knows his chances of graduating are slim, who already feels he’s lost enough time because of the war. He wants that money. Mathew’s silly pipedream of a plan becomes reality in Keith’s ready hands, and they rope in the weak-willed Moore to help. They need Madison as well, but Keith knows the level-headed Madison will never agree. So he tricks him into joining the casino heist, kidnapping Madison and Novak without them knowing it.

Here is where we add another dimension to Keith’s considerable palette of emotions. We have accepted that he is emotionally troubled and possibly, as Madison fears, psychologically “sick”. But his determined and cool effort to stab his best pal Madison in the back is not the action of a psycho, but just of plain old-fashioned greed. (Kerwin Mathews’ character, who does not seem to connect any wrongdoing with his plot, is the one who seems more disassociated from reality.) There may also be an element of jealousy here, as Keith sees that Madison is moving forward with his life with Miss Novak, and Keith may lose his caretaker, his emotional crutch, to her.

On the Thanksgiving break, the three conspirators rent a trailer and prepare to head back to Reno, and then up to Mathew’s rich papa’s ranch for turkey. They invite Madison and Novak along, who plan to marry in Reno. They do not tell the happy couple about the impending heist.

Here is an interesting shot, by the way. Mr. Madison enters Miss Novak’s dressing room, and we see him under her leg, a provocative shot that pre-dates the famous Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman shot in “The Graduate” (1967) by 12 years. I wonder if this is where they got the idea?

On the road, Madison puts two-and-two together, and nearly puts an end to their robbery scheme until Keith pulls a gun on him and forces him to go through with it.

William Conrad has a featured role as the unfortunate casino worker they force to help them. Tension builds, and the climax occurs on the upper levels of a parking garage where Madison and Keith have a final showdown, but a showdown not with fists or weapons, but with memories.

I expected the escaping Keith to be shot or fall to his death in the usual manner of solving the problem that films employed then and now. It was a surprise to find him being escorted safely away, which perhaps was a gesture to his being a sacrificing, and sacrificed, veteran. So often when a film ends with “the problem” being shot dead, it feels like a copout. We can’t diminish our problems like that in real life (or we would all need psychiatric treatment). That’s what Madison knows. Problems can't be eliminated with weapons, or outrun. Just faced.

I think the biggest shock was the sign listing the parking rates in this garage, where cars are parked using a mechanical lift: 25 cents for the first hour, 10 cents for the next two to four hours, and 5 cents for every half hour after that.

Eras are marked in many different ways, some not so subtle.

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