Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

'50s noirs: 5 Against The House / Underworld USA

Those American crime movies always conjures up images from those '40s classic noirs, but the '50s also saw a lot of snappy crime movies, often programmers or supporting features. Some studios like Columbia turned out some nifty ones like THE BROTHERS RICO, JOE MACBETH or THE BIG COMBO. I have now got a batch of Sam Fuller and Phil Karlson thrillers from the mid-50s, so let's dip a toe in some ...

5 AGAINST THE HOUSE is a neat 1955 meller, 84 minutes, with an interesting cast of 4 rather mature university students (they are Korean veterans going to college on the G.I. Bill, which explains their age), so we have the leader Guy Madison, the loopy one Brian Keith, excellent as usual as he goes quietly mad, the clever one Kerwin Mathews in one of his first roles, and the annoying one Alvy Moore and his constant wisecracks ... add in Kim Novak as 'the girl' - its one of Kim's first roles and she croons a few torch songs (presumably dubbed) and looks terrific as usual. 
Our gang are visiting Reno and the gambling casinos and after seeing a failed robbery and overhearing that the casino cannot be raided our clever one Kerwin comes up with an idea .... the others go along with it as a joke and plan to return the money, but Brian Keith is deadly serious .... the movie ambles along nicely and suddenly gets tense and exciting as the plan is put into action and casino guard William Conrad has to play along .... there is the usual tense showdown and it ends nicely as one would expect.
Karlson keeps it moving, Stirling Silliphant scripts but the good-looking cast is the thing here. Madison (1922-1996) had a good run in westerns (his 1954 THE COMMAND was one of the first I saw as a kid), he made a good one too with Jean Simmons HILDA CRANE (see Madison label); Kerwin was an easy on the eye looker who forged a good career in fantasy films: THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER etc, he also played French secret agent OSS 117 - when he died aged 81 in 2007 it turned out he had a male partner for over 40 years .... Brian Keith of course excelled in lots of films from westerns to Disney's original THE PARENT TRAP. Kim went on to her great era in the 50s - there was interesting magazine interview with her the other week, at 79 - a true Hollywood survivor.
Kerwin Mathews
Karlson (1908-1985) was one of those guys like Don Siegel, who came into the studio system just before television. Early live TV produced directors like John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn but there were already the guys like Siegel and Karlson, who got the chance to direct because they could do it quick and cheap and keep it snappy, like those William Wellmann pre-code movies in the 1930s. Other Karlsons I have to view soon are THE PHENIX CITY STORY, TIGHT SPOT and 99 RIVER STREET, he also directed Elvis in KID GALAHAD, a good Jeffrey Hunter war drama HELL TO ETERNITY and a few of those Dean Martin Matt Helm '60s capers. 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE may well have inspired the original OCEANS 11 caper ...

UNDERWORLD USA, 1961 "written, produced and directed by Samuel Fuller" is as gripping a thriller as I remembered from seeing it at the time, when I was an early teen. It is a very vivid revenge tale, starting with 14 year old Tolly Devlin witnessing his father being killed and he swears revenge on the 4 hoods responsible. He grows up to be tearaway career criminal Cliff Robertson, a great early role for him, who cleverly gets his ambition but pays the ultimate price in a sizzling operatic climax which Fuller orchestrates perfectly as the hoods are now a mob syndicate which he infiltrates.
Fuller was one of those mavericks who created great genre movies like PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, a real joy to discover last year, plus a Stanwyck western 40 GUNS, and classics like SHOCK CORRIDOR and THE NAKED KISS and his last success THE BIG RED ONE. Robertson, who died last year, is just right here, with Dolores Dorn as the moll who can spill the beans on the syndicate, and Beatrice Kay - a tougher Thelma Ritter - as the broad who looked after the young Tolly. Ideally she and Dorn are on the cover of that great 60s' 'Movie' paperback "Broads" (below) which covers a huge selection of shady ladies ... good to see this again, now for some more Fuller's: THE CRIMSON KIMONO, VERBOTEN... 
Rust and mobster

UNDERWORLD USA remains a tough, violent, amusing in parts noir as Robertson delights in torturing his victims and then there is Richard Rust, one of cinema's great killers who puts on his sunglasses before carrying out his assignments, even cold-heartedly dispatching a victim's young daughter ... he is similarly icy in 1962's great trash classic WALK ON THE WILD SIDE ....


  1. So glad that you are enjoying those 50s thrillers. With a movie like 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE, the script is tight and economical (Silliphant was one of the noted TV writers of the day, like Rod Serling, Chayevsky, and Abby Mann), but as you note, it's the cast. Guy Madison and Kerwin Mathews were two of the handsomest men in the movies, but Karlson gets them to relax so that they actually give good performances. Brian Keith is excellent (he's also good in Karlson's TIGHT SPOT); Alvy Moore was one of those actors forever typed as a wisecracking sidekick. And Kim Novak (at the beginning of her career) shows why audiences collectively sighed when she appeared.

    When Samuel Fuller is good, no one could beat him at creating tough, fast, frequently astonishing genre films. And it's fitting that a still from one of his movies graced the cover of BROADS (an indispensable little book), since his movies featured some of the most hard-edged heroines of all time: Jean Peters and Thelma Ritter in PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, Stanwyck in 40 GUNS, Angie Dickinson in CHINA GATE, Constance Towers in THE NAKED KISS, and Dolores Dorn and Beatrice Kay in UNDERWORLD USA.

  2. 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE also featured Jean Willes as the casino croupier, she also featured as one of the BROADS!

  3. Thank you so much for the wonderful book! I finished it a few days ago and cannot get it out of my head. It is pure magic. It was everything I hoped it would be and much more. ...
    the movie fifty shades of grey