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,5 Against the House

5 Against the House

Phil Karlson's 5 Against the House (1955) was an early credit for Kim Novak, made before she'd proven herself as a box office draw, back when she was still living under the dictatorial thumb of studio boss Harry Cohn. Cohn had felt burned when discovery/investment Rita Hayworth (whose surname he had changed from Cansino and whose hairline he had raised to make her seem less ethnic) married Prince Ali Aga Khan and retired from show business in 1948 and he was resolved not to let the same thing happen with Novak.

Billeting the Chicago-born actress in the YWCA-run Studio Club (an all-girls dormitory with a curfew, a house mother and only one entrance), Cohn had her tailed by private detectives even on her short walk from her quarters through the studio gates of Columbia Pictures. During this time, Novak was romantically involved with millionaire real estate developer Mac Krim, whom Cohn forbade her to marry on pain of excommunication. "You're a nobody," Cohn is purported to have told the actress. "All this can vanish overnight." While she and Krim were forced to canoodle privately and only on the weekends, Novak was assigned a series of publicity-mongering studio-mandated dates with a roster of Columbia contract players. Her escort to the 1954 Academy Awards ceremony (to which she wore her dress from Pushover [1954], her first significant film role) was Kerwin Mathews (himself clad in a pair of pants so tight that he could not sit down), one of her four costars in 5 Against the House.

5 Against the House originated with a novel of the same name by Jack Finney, best known as the author of The Body Snatchers (serialized in Colliers), which Don Siegel turned into the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers the following year. The punchy crime tale, about a quintet of college friends who dream up and nearly execute the heist of a Reno, Nevada casino was first serialized in, of all places, Good Housekeeping in 1954 (Martin Scorsese has claimed that Karlson's movie adaptation of the book influenced his own 1995 film Casino).

Independent producer/screenwriter Stirling Silliphant obtained an option on the property as a film for United Artists with Frank Tashlin tapped to direct and Tashlin's wife, Mary Costa, slated for the female lead. When Tashlin (who made the Martin and Lewis vehicle Artists and Models instead) dropped out of the project, British émigré Peter Godfrey (Christmas in Connecticut, 1945) was announced as the project's new helmsman with Italian actress Milly Vitale rumored to be cast in the role vacated by Mary Costa. At some point, the projected shifted to Columbia, where crime film specialist Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential, 1952, 99 River Street, 1953) was announced as the director and Kim Novak the film's female lead. The names of Novak's costars were announced in the October 5, 1954 edition of Variety: Guy Madison, Alvy Moore, Robert Horton and Roddy McDowall. Only Madison and Moore (at the time recovering from polio) would make the final cut, with Brian Keith replacing Horton and Kerwin Mathews chosen over McDowall to play the collegiate brain whose overactive intellect compels his friends to become 5 Against the House.

Principal photography for 5 Against the House proved just as interesting during preproduction, with Reno and Las Vegas engaging in a bidding war to attract the production to their respective environs. (Representatives for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce even offered up a $50,000 in credit as an inducement.) In the end, filming took place in both cities, after which shooting commenced without incident (apart from complaints from the cast about the frigid desert locations).

Cast as a nightclub chanteuse, Kim Novak had trained with Freddie Karger, the head of Columbia's music department, for her vocals but ultimately was dubbed by Jo Ann Greer. Returning to Hollywood after the completion of principal photography to her chaste room at The Studio Club, Novak's first home-cooked meal was cold soup and crackers. Favorable, albeit condescending, notices from critics ("an attractive dish," hooted The Los Angeles Times) raised her stock at Columbia. Harry Cohn made $100,000 loaning her to United Artists for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and subsequent high profile roles in Picnic (1955), The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) and Pal Joey (1957) solidified Novak's star status. Able to move out of the Studio Club into her own apartment, Novak still had to contend with the Columbia publicity machine, which specified that the lavish flat be painted in lavender because some PR mouthpiece decided it should be her favorite color – right down to the porcelain in her bathroom. Harry Cohn's godfatherly lock on the private life of Kim Novak lasted until his dying day in February of 1958, when he succumbed to a fatal heart attack after reading about the actress' affair with black entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.

Producer: Stirling Silliphant
Director: Phil Karlson
Screenplay: John Barnwell, William Bowers, Stirling Silliphant; Frank Tashlin (uncredited); Jack Finney (novel)
Cinematography: Lester White
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: George Duning
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Guy Madison (Al Mercer), Kim Novak (Kay Greylek), Brian Keith (Brick), Alvy Moore (Roy), Kerwin Mathews (Ronnie), William Conrad (Eric Berg), Jack Dimond (Francis Spiegelbauer 'Spiegy'), Jean Willes (Virginia).
BW-83m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Kim Novak, Reluctant Goddess by Peter Harry Brown
Kim Novak on Camera by Larry Kleno
King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn by Bob Thomas VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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