Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Houston Story (1956)

Film noir relies on suckers. People, typically of the male variety, who for one reason or another make a bad choice or fall for someone or something, and as a result end up in a world of hurt. And if they could turn back time, they'd make the same choice again. This is often due to a scheming femme fatale, and with all the classic ladies, who can blame the men, right? But there are also men who are driven by ambition, taking on risks that they can't afford to take, and biting off a piece that is way too large for them to chew on so they eventually choke on it. A classic noir example is 1950's '711 Ocean Drive' which stars Edmond O'Brien as an electronics engineer who tries to take over a nation-wide bookmaker outfit. A similar story is told in 1956's 'The Houston Story', except it involves the blackest source of money of them all, oil.

The movie starts off with an intriguing pre-credits scene. An unknown girl is found dead near a Houston pier, apparently suicide by drowning. Oil driller Frank Duncan (Gene Barry) identifies her as a chorus singer that went missing some time prior. The coroner, probably jaded, ends the prologue with a nice reference to 'Casablanca':
Out of all the docks in the world to jump off, she had to pick Houston.
After the credits roll, Duncan waits around for the newspapers to write about the dead girl's identification and the person who identified her. Sure enough, the next day he receives a visit from local mob muscle-man Chris Barker (Chris Alcaide), and he gets himself an invite to see nightclub singer Zoe Crane (Barbara Hale), whose real name is the same name Duncan gave to the dead girl. Duncan used to work with Crane's husband back in Oklahoma before she ran away from him. But Duncan wants more than to simply meet her, that was only the first part of his plan. He knows she has contacts with the local mob, and with her in a jam, she introduces him to Paul Atlas (Edward Arnold), who runs the Houston territory. Duncan has come up with a plan to siphon away oil from the oil fields, so it can be sold on the black market, but he needs financing to get the plan in motion, and that is where Atlas comes in. The plan works well, and soon Duncan is swimming in money, working his way up in the organisation. But Atlas's second man, Gordon Shay (Paul Richards) feels threatened, and is out for blood. And when the operation steals some oil pipes with lethal results, police inspector Gregg (Roy Engel), is also trying to get to the truth.

The movie doesn't waste too much time introducing all the characters, which extends even beyond the ones mentioned already. There's also waitress Madge (Jeanne Cooper) who carries a torch for Duncan and is rather naive. Then there's his landlord Louis Phelan (Frank Jenks) who Duncan sets up as the owner of the front for the illegal oil selling business, so there's a fall guy just in case. And finally there's a big boss, who oversees all the different mob territories, Emile Constant (John Zaremba). He runs the outfit like clockwork and Duncan quickly realizes it's him he's got to please, not Atlas and definitely not Gordon Shay. Duncan is smart, and both Atlas and Shay underestimate him, but Duncan also overestimates himself. What else is new?

Frank Duncan is the real noir deal. Ambitious, ruthless, fast, tough, and caring little about others. Pretty much the same can be said for Zoe Crane. Duncan effortlessly moves from the mousy waitress Madge to the sexy and sophisticated Crane. But at no point are Duncan or Crane fully committed, they are simply drawn to each other by sheer greed, lust and dollar signs.The part of Frank Duncan was originally given to Lee J. Cobb, but I really don't see that working well here. I like Cobb, but as an oil driller who ends up with Barbara Hale? No way. Gene Barry ('Naked Alibi') got the part, and the movie's the better for it, he is great here. And he has nice chemistry with Barbara Hale ('The Clay Pigeon', Perry Mason's secretary Della Street), who is an almost unrecognizable platinum blonde femme fatale here. Her first scene has her singing 'Put The Blame On Mame' at the nightclub, and while she's no Rita Hayworth in 'Gilda', she pulls it off well and she shows throughout the movie that she could really be a tough and sexy dame. I found their performances and parts in this movie quite memorable, especially Barbara Hale was an inspired casting decision!

The rest of the cast consist mostly of B and character actors who are solid across the board, but you won't remember much of their performances. The actors are also helped by the screenplay by Robert E. Kent (credited under his usual pseudonym, James B. Gordon), which is fast-moving, complex and twisty, without ever coming across as ludicrous or far-fetched. The movie owes a lot to him, with the rich story that never feels like it loses sight of itself. It's not the most original story however, I already mentioned '711 Ocean Drive' before, but it doesn't detract from the movie's entertainment value. The movie has some decently snappy dialogue, primarily between Frank Duncan and Zoe Crane, who are both tough cookies in their own ways.
What are you trying to do, write your own death certificate?
This was director William Castle's last noir, after he also directed noirs like 'Johnny Stool Pigeon' and 'Hollywood Story'. Soon after this movie he would find his 'niche' so to say, in horror/exploitation movies such as 'The Tingler', 'House On Haunted Hill' and 'Homocidal'. Castle knew his craft, and was a good director who knew how to translate a screenplay to the big screen. For this movie he had cinematographer Henry Freulich ('The Crooked Web', 'Chicago Syndicate') by his side. Freulich was a prolific cinematographer on dozens and dozens of B-features, and he does a really good job here. It won't necessarily give you goosebumps, but he does use his lighting setup's effectively and unlike a lot of late 50s noir movies, never gives this movie that brightly lit TV-like look.

This movie works remarkably well, and in almost every way feels like it had a bigger budget than it probably did. It also has a suitably downbeat ending, with several characters ending up dead, and no easy way out for anybody. Well-made, well acted, with a strong story, you can't really go wrong with this one. It even has a little noir pearl of wisdom, as one of the last lines spoken by Zoe Crane captures the femme fatale ethos perfectly:
I can't afford to latch on to has-been's.
And with that line, I will end this review of a movie that deserves to be better known. A great film noir, that simply delivers the good. Highly recommended!