A man, a plan, a cast and a mob as big as Texas, and an important step toward independent spine-tingling for director William Castle…
I’m a big fan of Gene Barry, and got hooked on him as I voraciously consumed every last Bat Masterson and Burke’s Law episode I could get my hands on. I’m not the first person to notice that his looks, bemused charm and ultra suave, mischievous demeanor were all very reminiscent of Cary Grant. To me this was extra fun when Gene brought those star qualities to settings where you’d rarely if ever see Cary, like westerns or pulpy, noirish crime stories. In The Houston Story, a movie of the latter genre, Gene plays an oil driller, working day and night on his scheme to side-siphon millions worth of oil away for black market sales. With that oily (who needs a thesaurus?) devilish charm, bravado and ambition as big as all Texas, Gene makes you believe that he really works at it and will do anything to get his plan to come together, including using honest folks who love him and planning to set up his cabbie buddy to be in the legal position of holding the bag in case things go more south than Houston. Abundant charisma and drive makes Gene an appealing con man who almost manages to be heroic, by remaining the lesser of two evils when compared to the ruthless mob he’s eventually victimized by.
When The Houston Story began shooting, it was someone quite different, namely Lee J. Cobb, in the lead role, and he filmed a few scenes before suffering heart trouble. Due to a close resemblance to Cobb, Director William Castle stood in for a few shots, which made for comical mismatches once Castle’s scenes were cut in with Gene Barry’s, with whom you could confidently say Castle had very little resemblance. Before the credits even roll at the beginning of the movie, Gene seems more like your typical noir detective, donning a fedora as he “identifies” a body at the morgue with the gravest of certainty, as being that of Carrie Hemper. Except Carrie’s not really dead, nor does he have a clue who the body even is. It’s all a ruse meant to get him in the papers and draw out the real Carrie, former wife of his former friend and business colleague. She ran away from her husband and she’s now entangled with the mob, and that connection is what Gene’s really after. He needs to acquaint himself with the bigger wheels at the cracker factory in order to get his scheme financed and running. Soon he’s successfully entangled with said mob, who true to form, plan to siphon Gene’s clever plan away from him, and then cast him aside. In the meantime Gene gets stuck between the femme and a nice waitress, and also between the violent and relatively peaceful factions of the “combine” aka crime syndicate. There’s your plot, basic as you’d expect from a B flick made in large part because it fit into producer Sam Katzman’s idea of movies exposing confidential organized crime activity in different cities (The Miami Story, for another example). Consequently you get a look at gangsters modeling their operations after big corporations, coming to order in boardroom meetings with graphs and quarterly reports, talking research and development and obsessing over profits and efficiency.
But if that was meant to be the main attraction of Houston Story, I think there’s something even more compelling. It’s the fun of seeing near-iconic TV stars in quite different roles that’s the major feature of this movie, and honestly I wonder if the film would be half as entertaining without the comfort of the familiarity and interest in the novelty that results. For fans of Barbara Hale as Della Street in Perry Mason, it’s a kick to see her noir femme lounge moll alter ego, short cropped platinum blonde Zoe Crane, the “Texas songbird” (who even sings “Put the Blame on Mame”). Once I discovered that Castle was the one who discovered and got the rights to the source material for The Lady From Shanghai, but was overlooked when Columbia’s Harry Cohn gave the directing job to Orson Welles, then I no longer thought I was imagining the resemblance between Barbara Hale’s styling and Rita Hayworth’s in Lady. Now if all you know of the fantastic and very recently departed Jeanne Cooper is that she played the Grande Dame of soaps, Mrs. Chancellor on the Young and the Restless, then you can enjoy her here as a nice diner waitress pining after Gene, seeing she’s no match for the vampy Hale but steadfastly loyal to the end. Then there’s Chris Alcaide, oft-seen husky baddie; you’d have great fun, and no trouble at all, spotting him in almost every TV western ever aired, or in movies like Kid Galahad and The Big Heat. Paul Richards plays Barbara Hale’s boyfriend and right hand henchman of Edward Arnold, who’s the mob boss with the finances and pull to make Gene’s oil tap-and-diversion dream come true. Edward Arnold makes every movie a little better, and here in one of his last films is really showing his age, looking a touch more tired and weary than befits his position in the “combine;” maybe that’s meant to convey his grip on his region is tenuous and he was passed over one too many times, and maybe I read too much into it. Both Gene and the big syndicate boss located in St. Louis (John Zaremba) are strict adherents of nonviolence, an aim which is contradicted when, in the course of a pipeline heist, a driver is murdered on the orders of the jealous Paul Richards. The act not only creates a deadly rift within the organization but predictably brings on the unwanted heat of a federal investigation. After this plot point the action becomes almost frantic, with double and triple crosses piling up on each other along with the bodies.
For William Castle The Houston Story may have been a minor film, but it marked an important step on his way to establishing himself as a big name, since it was his last film working for another producer. The tight, steady pace of The Houston Story was a product of Castle’s years turning out good quality on low budgets, everything from great stuff in the Whistler and Crime Doctor series to westerns and adventure yarns, years in which he worked out the balance of keeping a story fast and active while also enabling actors to turn out engaging performances, sometimes on the basis of pretty thin stuff plot-wise. That talent and training was a huge help in this movie, because a great many things happen without much background, justification, explanation, rhyme or reason, but there’s still enough to keep your interest and such little time spent dwelling on anything that you don’t question the bumps too much. Another saving grace is that the movie looks good, a consistently pleasing sundrenched look in the daylight and a glitzy neon bathed glow at night, just what you’d expect from the best movies of this genre.
Overall Castle made the best of the underdeveloped material, and gives us a thoroughly OK movie, rather forgettable but still satisfying and entertaining. It’s not the greatest crime B or noir ever made but it’s not time wasted either. It may be half-baked but it’s tasty, has good ingredients and hits the spot. Speaking of tasty, there’s a fun reward for those with eyes sharp enough to scan the Derrick Diner walls: William Castle, on the verge of breaking out on his own and into his best scary stuff, dusts off his hands after this crime romp that would seem tame by comparison, and includes a fun little hint toward his desire to “scare the pants off America”. As the climactic diner shootout winds down, in Gene’s last scene, look behind him on the far right diner wall for an advertised special I’d sure love to order: “Frank and Stein”. Gets my vote for the greatest movie Castle never made.
this post is proud to be a part of the WILLIAM CASTLE BLOGATHON, which you can and should learn all about by clicking on Mr. Castle’s picture. Please check out all the other great posts covering pretty much everything Castle ever made!