5 Against the House (1955): Karlson’ Heist Film Noir, Starring Guy Madison, Brian Keith, and Kim Novak

Phil Karlson directed 5 Against the House, a well-crafted heist film noir, starring Guy Madison, Brian Keith, and Kim Novak.

Based on Jack Finney’s 1954 novel of the same name, which was later serialized by Good Housekeeping magazine, the tale enters on fictionalized robbery of what was a real Nevada casino, Harold’s Club. 

Four friends at the Glendale, Arizona campus of Midwestern University–Brick (Keith), Al (Madison), Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews) and Roy (Alvy Moore)–visit the Harold’s Club casino in Reno during a weekend.

Ronnie, having lost money playing roulette, must cash a check.  He is accompanied by Roy but, unbeknownst to either, the cashier is being threatened by armed man.  The cashier alerts casino officials, who apprehend the would-be robber and Roy and Ronnie.

Al persuades the police to release Roy and Ronnie, but Ronnie has become obsessed with the idea of spectacular casino robbery, and he begins planning to rob Harold’s Club.

Back at college, Ronnie reconnects with his girlfriend Kaye (Kim Novak), a singer at a local nightclub. After one of her shows, Brick, a Korean War veteran, is provoked into fighting over a former girlfriend. he then suffers from the effects of a dissociative psychotic episode due to ongoing battle with posttraumatic stress disorder.  Al urges a distraught Brick to return to veteran’s hospital for treatment, but he refuses.

Claiming that the robbery would be an adventurous “first” in their otherwise ordinary lives, Ronnie reveals the plan to Brick and Roy, maintaining that all the money would be returned, thereby ensuring that no one involved would be guilty of crime. Brick and Roy gradually abandon their misgivings. The wealthy Ronnie then uses his personal inheritance funds to purchase untraceable trailer and car and fabricate a wooden cart that is identical to the cash carts used at Harold’s.

The robbery can only be executed if Al participates–at least four people are needed for the dangerously operation. Coincidentally, the day before the robbery, Al proposes to Kaye, and they decide to go to Reno with the others to get married.

On their drive to Reno, Al recognizes the cart’s design and inadvertently turns on a small reel-to-reel recorder hidden inside the cart itself. Ronnie reveals his robbery plans to Kaye and Al, but the shocked couple refuse to participate.

Fearing a life of destitution and confinement, the increasingly volatile Brick explains that the robbery will go ahead as planned, but the money will not be returned. Brick threatens to kill Al if anyone attempts to sabotage the plan.

Once they arrive at the casino, the robbery is carried out efficiently as Reno’s casino district. In the chaotic festivities, the disguised Brick, Ronnie and Al blend into the crowd and convince cart operator (William Conrad) to retrieve cash from the money room, using the prerecorded message to make him believe there is a desperate man with a gun in the cart who will shoot him if he fails to cooperate.

After the robbery, Brick escapes with the money, but Al pursues him into a casino parking. Kaye, having alerted the police, follows them, and tense standoff ensues.

In the end, Al convinces Brick to give up peacefully, and no one else is arrested. Al and Kaye embrace on a crowded street.

A graphically-detailed, well executed heist movie, 5 Against the House has influenced various directors, from Scorsese (in his 1995 Casino) to the original 1960 Ocean’s 11, and its remake and sequels by Soderbergh decades later.

Cast

Kim Novak as Kaye Greylek
Brian Keith as Brick
Guy Madison as Al Mercer
Kerwin Mathews as Ronnie
Alvy Moore as Roy
William Conrad as Eric Berg
Jack Dimond as Francis Spiegelbauer
Jean Willes as Virginia