Today I’m following Hell’s Island (1955) by rewatching another crime drama director Phil Karlson made that same year. 5 Against the House is a fast-paced caper with a character’s mental illness as a very interesting and key element. The story centers on four college buddies, Al (Guy Madison) and Brick (Brian Keith) who are Korean War vets, and their law school roommates Roy (Alvy Moore) and Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews). A bad case of mid-semester doldrums and a brush with a casino stickup during their recent trip to Reno, get Ronnie thinking. He’s from a family of overachievers and decides his claim to fame will be pulling off the perfect casino heist. It’s all just a challenging exercise to him, more like a prank, since he plans on returning the money. His plan involves cowboy costumes, a dummy cash cart, recordings of menacing thug voices and an intricately timed schedule. It all sounds perfect, but what Ronnie doesn’t plan on is that Brick, who’s fighting a losing battle with PTSD, is prone to violent outbursts, and sees no future for himself other than one with all that money, pulls a gun and commandeers the heist. If he fails or anyone talks, he promises to take all three of his friends plus Al’s girlfriend Kay (Kim Novak) down with him.
Because this heist is such a monumentally risky and dumb idea, Ronnie, Roy and Brick don’t tell Al, since he’s the most adult and level-headed of the bunch. But they need a fourth man, so Al initially thinks he’s going along for a fun gambling trip, and gets a pleasant surprise when Kay tags along so they can marry in Reno. It’s all fun and games and endless quips until things turn deadly serious. Then Al has the impossible task of trying to steer the heist to a harmless conclusion, get Brick out alive and back into a psychiatric ward. That competitive quip-fest I mentioned almost got tiresome, but it made sense as the stressed out student’s or shell-shocked veteran’s coping mechanism, was a big part of their hazing of a freshman, set Al apart as the cool grown up of the group, and set up a good contrast in tone once the crazy scheme goes bad and all the jokes stop.
Kay is a nightclub singer, so Kim Novak gets a couple of songs, and she and Madison make a glamorous couple who patch up their bumpy relationship right in time to become Brick’s hostages in the Airstream-ish trailer Ronnie bought for the heist. William Conrad plays the cashier they target for their cart/money bag switch. It’s a fun twist to have the men in cowboy garb in a casino; it goes against the smooth tuxedo approach you’d expect, and it adds absurdity to the suspense when you see them give each other nervous and shifty glances with those ridiculous fake beards and mustaches on. When things inevitably go wrong, there’s an exciting chase and standoff in the unique setting of a multi-level parking garage with a car elevator.