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How often does an actor get to star opposite himself in a movie? It's a rare stunt to say the least and usually reserved for virtuoso performers such as Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949) or comic impressionists like Mike Myers (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, 1997). Jack Palance, on the other hand, seems an unlikely choice for a dual role but here he is playing almost identical brothers in the 1957 melodrama, House of Numbers. One is Arnie Judlow, a former prizefighter now serving time in San Quentin because he beat a man to death with his fists for flirting with his sexy, blonde wife Ruth (Barbara Lang). The other is his slightly older brother Bill, who is enlisted along with Ruth to help spring Arnie from the penitentiary.
The escape attempt which takes up the first half of House of Numbers is so convoluted and absurdly irrational that it does begin to look like the work of a madman - and rightly so. Arnie has been driven nutty by his confinement and begins to suspect that Bill and Ruth are having an affair (they aren't). Complicating matters is Bill and Ruth's next door neighbor Henry (Harold J. Stone) who just happens to work as a guard at the prison and turns out to be a slimy little blackmailer as well. Nothing goes as planned - does it ever in a prison escape film? - and the ending is so abruptly anticlimactic you'll think you missed something. We don't even get to see Arnie's final fate.But House of Numbers is less about the big breakout than an oddball showcase for Jack Palance's dual roles.
Even though Palance won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for sending up his own tough-guy image in City Slickers (1991), he has never been celebrated as an actor of great range. Usually he's played villains (Shane, 1953, Sudden Fear, 1952) or angst-ridden protagonists (The Big Knife, 1955 Attack!, 1956) but here he gets to play both. As Arnie, he combs his eyebrows differently, pitches his voice slightly higher and revs up the manic behavior complete with facial tics and a caged animal physicality. Bill, on the other hand, is always in a cold sweat, looking panic-stricken and guilty of some crime. There's not really much contrast between them but it's still fun to watch Palance playing doubles. He's not exactly what you'd call handsome but his skeletal-like facial features exert a certain fascination. (For those who don't know, Palance suffered severe burns when his bomber crashed in World War II and plastic surgery resulted in the face that launched his movie career.)
Although you wouldn't expect it for a B-movie, MGM assembled quite an impressive behind-the-camera team for House of Numbers. Director and co-scenarist Russell Rouse won an Oscar® nomination for The Well (1951), a study in mob psychology, and is best known for his contributions to the film noir genre: The Thief (1952), Wicked Woman (1953), New York Confidential (1955). Music composer/conductor Andre Previn has received numerous Academy Awards for his work over the years on such major films as Gigi (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959) and My Fair Lady (1964). And George Folsey was the innovative black and white cinematographer of Applause (1929) and such later MGM Technicolor hits as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Forbidden Planet (1956). Unfortunately, their combined efforts in House of Numbers didn't exactly wow the critics. The New York Times mirrored the opinions of many when it stated that "anybody who believes House of Numbers...will believe anything...Aside from the absurdities of the plot itself, Mr. Palance's wide-eyed, panting characterizations (both of them) should have alerted every guard on the premises at the very outset."
Even with Palance chewing the scenery in practically every scene, he is completely upstaged by veteran scene-stealer Timothy Carey (uncredited) in their one scene together. Carey, playing his weirdo cellmate, delivers a self-directed riff on doing time in his famous cliched-jaw, gritted-teeth acting style that made him so memorable in Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955), Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976).
Producer: Charles Schnee
Director: Russell Rouse
Screenplay: Jack Finney (novel), Don Mankiewicz, Russell Rouse
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Film Editing: John McSweeney, Jr.
Music: Andre Previn
Cast: Jack Palance (Arnie Judlow/Bill Judlow), Harold Stone (Henry Nova), Edward Platt (The Warden), Barbara Lang (Ruth Judlow), Timothy Carey (Convict).
by Jeff Stafford