Life and Death in L.A.: August 2022

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Hey, College Boy, Wanna Rob a Casino?

Four vets attending college on the GI Bill and a
cabaret singer try to rob a Reno casino and 
pull off the perfect crime. 

‘Five Against the House’ (1955):
Part soap opera, part screwball comedy,
with a heist tacked on at the end


quartet of Korean War veterans studying at college are best buddies. While they’re older than the average college kid, some are in their second childhood. They chase girls; a couple of them haze a freshman and make him their personal slave. This is supposed to be all in fun but on today's campuses it would break the needle on the creepy meter. All of which has little to nothing to do with the heist that they’ll eventually plot.

The foursome goes to Harold’s casino in Reno, Nev., for a quick shot of gambling before they must turn around and get back to campus. Pop culture enthusiasts may be interested to learn that the film was shot on location at Harold’s, which long ago met with the wrecking ball, as aging casinos do.

By chance, a couple of the guys witness one of the all-time dumbest robbery attempts at the cashier’s window. The would-be holdup man gets caught, but that’s when Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews) gets the idea to pull a stickup of his own. He’s a rich kid who doesn’t need the money, but wants to prove he’s smart enough to rob the joint without getting caught (shades of Leopold and Loeb). 

The idea is to leave the stolen loot where the casino can recover it. It’s meant to be a prank. But Brick (Brian Keith), who suffered a head wound in the war, is a wild card in this shaky spectacle. This gimmick recalls William Bendix’s shell-shocked Buzz Wanchek in “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), who may or may not have committed a murder.

The most serious-minded of the group, Al Mercer (Guy Madison), whose on again, off again relationship with Kay (Kim Novak) takes up a chunk of the film’s first 40 minutes or so, plans on a career in law and the prank is clearly not his cup of tea. But he's tricked into going along with the group.

That a band of such well-scrubbed lads would flirt with arrest and possibly deadly consequences is a stretch. The whimsical tone shifts to somber when we realize that there's a deranged maniac among the lads who’s been waiting to show his cards.

We never feel that this band of preppies is up to the task of pulling off such a hoax, but never mind. The film’s final minutes are what makes it worth watching, assuming that you can hang in there that long. The guys employ a clever but highly improbable homemade machine which they hope will make a successful robbery possible — but then things go wrong. 

With a bigger helping of hijinx, or a more disciplined approach to the caper, “Five Against the House” could have been a winner. Instead, it runs low on chips toward the middle, and just about folds before the game really gets underway.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

What, Another Insurance Man is Out to Beat the System?

Charles McGraw holds a gun on
worrying Peter Brocco in 'Roadblock.'

On the face of it, “Roadblock” (1951) is a tall tale filled with absurdities. An insurance investigator who can’t conceive of how easily he might get caught if he robs one of his employer’s clients. He’s the same guy who catches perps who rip off the customers, and ought to know better. Added to that is an inveterate gold digger who changes her stripes midstream when the underpaid insurance investigator falls for her.

But it’s not all bad news, in fact, there’s a lot to stick around for.

A clever twist at the beginning gives a hint about where the story is headed. Insurance investigators Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) and his partner Harry Miller (Louis Jean Heydt) have a way of tripping up thieves with carefully laid traps. It’s this subterfuge that gives us a clue about Joe’s inner world. He’s skilled at pulling the wool over crooks’ eyes. But, clearly, it won’t be long before his penchant for theatrical misdirection takes him down a different path.

Joe is a straight arrow, but once he meets hot tamale Diane (Joan Dixon) his morally upright resolve begins to crumble. Diane, he quickly learns, is no slouch at working a scheme or two of her own. She hustles a discounted airline ticket, which conflicts with Joe’s moral standards, or so it seems. Beneath his mask of ethical superiority lies a con man wannabe. In Diane he sees a pretty face and perhaps a kindred spirit and, a bit too quickly, he goes goo-goo-eyes over her.

Diane (Joan Dixon).
For her part, Diane is laughably mercenary in her pursuit of fur coats and golden baubles. She sidles up to gangsters and sharpies in her quest for minks and sables — a man-eater lusting after scalps. She’s as self-obsessed as any femme fatale we’ve met and she doesn’t care who knows it.

Joe is in a downward spiral, although he’s not aware of it, and soon she’ll be on the upswing. Somehow, they’ll meet in the middle and connect. Unexpectedly, and inexplicably, things begin to change with Diane once the two couple up. Could it be that beneath her materialistic exterior lies the heart of a woman yearning for true love and the simple life of an insurance inspector’s wife? How that transformation comes about is not quite clear. Without warning, she seems to join the ranks of the exceedingly small sorority of femmes fatale who experience the curative powers of romance. 

But all is not well with the smitten Joe. His gangster cohort soon convinces him that she’ll tire of the simple life, and he becomes convinced that he must take drastic action. He devises a plan to score a large cache of loot.

For a film that tears at the fabric of believability, the story moves forward quickly enough to keep us from noticing or caring too much about how little sense much of it makes. It might be called a weak sister to “Double Indemnity” (1944), which is about another insurance man scamming the system in order to hold onto a gorgeous babe.

Doomed by the choices he makes.
But lapses in logic somehow make “Roadblock” more substantial in unexpected ways. Emotions have a way of clouding our judgment, and the seemingly off-kilter decisions that characters make seem true to human fallibilities and life’s unpredictability. As in true crime TV, the most human elements, at times, are the utterly illogical choices people make when their lives begin to spiral into a crisis. How many times in true crime stories would factual occurrences be considered too coincidental, illogical or outlandish to be included in a fictional story? With that in mind, “Roadblock” gives us plenty of barely credible elements to chew on.

Joe’s foray into criminal enterprise is a leading example of emotions overwhelming logic. His rookie entry into the world of crime is doomed, and pretty soon the couple ends up on the lam. He aims to get himself and Diane to Mexico where they can live outside the reach of U.S. law enforcement. The finale takes place in the Los Angeles River bed, a dry concrete gulf that Joe desperately detours through with the police in hot pursuit — in today’s Los Angeles the chase would undoubtedly be telecast live to boffo ratings. 

Despite it all, don’t be deterred. This low-budget RKO production, shot for around $200,000, doesn’t show the thread-bare trappings of many a cut-rate endeavor. Like a handful of other cheapo productions, “Roadblock” is gritty, a bit slap-dash, but somehow keeps us watching. Just think of it as a savory tidbit for times when you’re not in the mood for a heavy meal.