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5 Against The House: Movie Review

Updated on November 6, 2018
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.

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The film we're looking at, here, is "5 Against the House," (1955), directed by Phil Karlson.

The actual, big-name movie star of the cast seems to have been Kim Novak. The other main players included Brian Keith (as Brick), Guy Madison (as Al Mercer), Kerwin Mathews (as Ronnie), and Alvy Moore (as Roy).

Folks, this is not a good one, I'm afraid. I have to give this film a 5 out of 10, and that's probably too high.

If I were to describe this film in one word, it would be: forced.

Everything about this movie is forced, in my opinion.

The camaraderie among the four men is forced.

Their constant stream of allegedly witty banter is forced. I never found their comic routine funny --- just annoying. I found myself constantly wishing the four of them would simply shut up and go away.

The heist plan that they eventually gravitate around, depends, for its very conception, on the forced naivete of one of the characters, "Ronnie."

The way the plan goes "sideways," as it were, depends upon the forced psychopathy of Brick.

And my final indictment against the film is that it lacks integrity.

Basically, we're looking at four men who are, evidently, close friends.

We are certain that Brick and Al Mercer are Korean War veterans, apparently attending college on the G.I. Bill. However, it is possible that all four men are Korean War veterans.

The reason I am unsure is that Roy delivers a line of dialogue suggesting that he and Ronnie had been excused due to a minor medical condition or physical irregularity. But then again, I am not entirely sure that the line was not delivered as a sarcastic joke by Roy; its hard to tell with him at least half the time.

Anyway, the four men are attending college, and appear to all be of similar age: mid-thirties to early-forties, in my opinion.

Now, from the moment we meet these four characters, they are engaged in this aforementioned, alleged witty repartee, in which practically every line they say is some kind of joke, or put across with some kind of sarcastic twist.

Now, I may be getting cranky in my old age, but I did not find their word-utterances charming or engaging. As I mentioned before, I found myself continually wishing the lot of them would shut up and go away.

I did not find any of them particularly likable. You have to like a character to care about him and what happens to him. I thought it was pathetic, the way they enslave---, I mean hazed a freshman.

Imagine, men in their mid-thirties, war veterans, stooping so low!

One last word about their banter. You know what it was like? It was like the four of them had seen The Maltese Falcon (1941), and patterned their own speech patterns and affectations of cool after Sam Spade as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart.

Ronnie

Out of nowhere, Ronnie gets the blues. He wants to "make his mark," as it were, and he fears his chance is passing him by.

Blah, blah, blah.... Huge Snore!

Anyway, he wants to be first at something, the first to do something. He wants historical prominence, fame, even infamy, for being the first to do something that has previously not been done, up to now seemed impossible.

He decides that he (with a little help from his friends) will be the first to rob an allegedly un-rob (b)-able casino. Believe me, the details are too trivial to recount. But I will say that if any of you are familiar with the Ben Affleck caper-film, Reindeer Games, you will notice antecedent elements in 5 Against The House.

The most interesting part of Ronnie's harebrained scheme is his construction of a box with a recorder in it. On that recording device he has recorded some tough, gangster talk, allegedly from a two-gunned, psychopathic, little person small enough to fit inside, deranged, quick-triggered, escaped convict --- who is to threaten the appropriate party with grievous bodily harm, at a minimum, if his compliance is not immediately and wholeheartedly forthcoming.

And yet I have not told you the best part!

You see, Ronnie means to pull off this little caper as a joke, a prank. Why, he's not even going to keep the money. After he and his friends pull off the heist, according to his plan, he thinks they will leave the money... somewhere; and then phone the casino to tell them where the money is.

Ronnie's demeanor suggests that he believes everybody will have a good laugh all around, and that, somehow, there will be no hard feelings. He actually seems to think (like, perhaps a delusional 13-year-old boy might) that the authorities will not be interested in arresting him and putting him behind bars.

For one thing, he seems to be oblivious to the harm that can be done by "merely" threatening violence. He seems to think that words, by themselves, are meaningless.

But threatening to blow someone's head off unless they give you the money, is not meaningless, even if you're "just joking."

What if the person you say that to is seventy-five years old, with a weak heart? If his heart bursts in his chest, are you not responsible, even if you were just joking?

What I am saying is that Ronnie is pathologically oblivious to the fundamental violence of his plan.

And now we come to the forced psychopathy of Brick.

The behavior of the character played by Brian Keith offers us a nice case study in the legal argument of temporary insanity.

Out of nowhere, in a conflict deliberately started by Brick, we learn about his Korean War- (a specific situation he was involved in)- originated post traumatic stress syndrome.

The first situation involved Brick and the guys out at a club or restaurant. Brick deliberately attempts to seduce away a woman from a man, who is clearly her date. It seems that Brick and the young woman had had a previous romantic history.

At any rate, Brick is being quite inappropriately flirtatious with the woman, with her date only a few feet away. The man is roused, quite understandably wanting to know what was going on.

Instead of showing any good grace by sidestepping the conflict, with apologies, asserting that he was merely saying "Hello" to an "old friend," and then taking his leave (which would have been the sensible thing to do), --- Brick contemptuously dismisses the young man: Go away, junior. Cant' you see I'm trying to seduce your woman!

A fist fight ensues, and Brick, with his military training and all, proves to be the superior combatant, striking the young man repeatedly in the face, while he is on the ground.

Now here comes the good part. You see, Brick gets this wild look in his eyes. We know that he is having a crazy moment, because of the rapid blinking that ensues. His friend, Al Mercer, is able to intervene before the now, apparently crazy, Brick does grievous bodily harm to the young man, if he doesn't kill him.

The point I'm making, in relation to the "forced" thesis I'm developing, is this: Brick, in a state of cool, calculating, deliberate, and perfectly sane instigation, started the conflict that triggered his apparent, flashback, crazy moment.

Does that make sense? Are we clear?

Good.

Al Mercer breaks up the fight and hustles his friend, Brick, back home, the college dorm room they share.

They have a little chat, and Al Mercer wonders if it isn't best for Brick to go back to the Veteran's Hospital and let the "doctors" continue the work of helping him heal his wounded psyche.

However, Brick will have none of it. He makes it perfectly clear that he will never, ever, ever, ... EVER go back to "those doctors!" Through his negative exhortation, we are meant to understand that he views "those doctors" as a horror. No explanation is given about why "those doctors" are such a horror; we're never given so much as a flashback scene of elucidation.

But remember that for later. "Those doctors" are a horror.

Anyway, the matter is dropped, as Al Mercer accepted Brick's assurances that he would be, somehow, alright with time... blah, blah, blah...

Let us return to Ronnie's harmless scheme to rob the casino.

Brick is the first to agree to it. But we have already established the fact that his post traumatic stress syndrome makes him prone to crazy moments during violent situations.

How much do you want to bet that there will be one or two changes in the plan?

Do you think that the money, they steal, will be returned if he, Brick, has anything to say about it?

And what are we to think when we see that Brick has, clandestinely, acquired a handgun? How does this comport with Ronnie's "non-violent" plan?

Alright, Roy reluctantly agrees to the plan, with reservations. His dialogue in these scenes actually borders on the serious and straightforward, for a change.

Al Mercer is not told about it because no one thinks he would ever willingly and consciously agree to such a thing. Nevertheless, Ronnie believes that Al Mercer's presence is required for the plot.

We've go to have four! Again, see Ben Affleck's Reindeer Games.

Al Mercer is duped into going along, under false pretenses, which I will not bother with here.

During their journey (really to the casino, as Al Mercer thinks they are all riding in the RV to somewhere else, to do something else), Brick's true sinister intentions come to light.

Al Mercer tries to talk Brick out it, but the latter's resolve is unshakable. Now, with his gun out, he directly imposes his will upon the other three friends, and the scheme, altering it to a more cunning, violent direction.

They get to the casino, and we find that it is some kind of holiday, or party occasion, in the town.

Everyone is dressed up in holiday costumes. Brick and the other three also dress up in ridiculous get-ups. Again, see Ben Affleck's Reindeer Games.

So, the theft happens, they get the money. But then Brick turns on everybody, and tries to make good his escape on his own. Al Mercer takes off after him, telling the authorities that they must not corner, or "crowd" Brick.

Al Mercer catches up to Brick and confronts him. Brick does the wild-eyed, rapid blinking thing, which tells us that he is having a crazy moment.

Al Mercer says to soothing words to Brick. The madness leaves his eyes; and he becomes deflated and defeated. He sheepishly goes along with authorities.

The End.

Remember Brick's hatred of the Veteran's Hospital and "those doctors"? If the movie had had any integrity at all, Brick should have either shot it out to the death with the police, or at least killed himself.

Here's the reason I say this: Once again, as Brick finally reveals his true sinister intentions to his closest friend, Al Mercer, with regard to the casino robbery, the former, once again, mentions the dreaded "those doctors."

He explains that his intention is to take the money and put as much distance as possible between himself and "those doctors." I got the impression that Brick regarded being at the Veteran's Hospital and treatment at the hands of "those doctors" as a fate worse than death.

To make that supposed horror real, Brick should have at least killed himself, at the point that he was cornered and knew that he had no way out.

And I might as well give the movie this shot: The title doesn't fit. Yes, "5 Against the House" does sound cool, but doesn't actually fit what happens in the movie.

Alternate title suggestions: "Folly," the somewhat ironic, "The Perfect Plan," or something that fits Brick's supposed post traumatic stress, something like, "Cloud of Fear," or "Cloud of Dread," or "Demon Within," or something like that.

Anyway, thank you very much for reading!

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