The Houston Story
Cast & Crew
After years of toiling in the oil fields of Galveston, Texas, Frank Duncan, a shrewd, ambitious oil driller, conceives of a plan to steal millions of dollars of crude oil. To finance his scheme, Duncan contacts Houston mob boss Paul "Paulie" Atlas through Zoe Crane, the lounge singer girl friend of Atlas' second-in-command, Gordie Shay. Impatient for wealth and stature, Zoe, who changed her name from Carrie Hemper after deserting her husband, an old oil drilling friend of Duncan's, puts Duncan in contact with Atlas. After Duncan outlines his plan to bribe the foremen into allowing him to tie into their lines and thus steal fuel from the tanks, Atlas agrees to back Duncan. Duncan proposes forming a dummy corporation as a front in case something goes wrong and suggests appointing his good-natured yet dim-witted friend Louie Phelan to be its head. Once Duncan departs, Atlas reassures Shay that he plans to dump Duncan as soon as he is no longer useful. When Shay and Atlas travel to St. Louis to present the plan to Emile Constant, the head of a nationwide crime syndicate, Constant warns Atlas that the operation must be nonviolent. Soon after, Duncan is visiting his sweetheart Madge at the Derrick Café where she waits tables, when Zoe comes to deliver a message from Atlas, arranging for a meeting later that night. After consummating his deal with Atlas, Duncan appoints Louie head of the company, and the naïve Louie blithely signs all contracts presented to him. When Shay comes to visit Duncan in his office one day, the wary Duncan surreptitiously tapes their conversation. After laying out a plan to siphon oil from the refineries at the docks, Duncan instructs Shay to hijack a load of pipes from a truck that evening, and cautions that there must be no violence. Deciding to sabotage Duncan's advancement by insuring that the hijacking fails, Shay tells his thugs to kill one of the drivers. With the murder of the truck driver, federal agents are called in to investigate. When Constant confronts Duncan about the killing, Duncan plays the tape recording in which he tells Shay to avoid violence. Furious, Constant fires Shay and after installing Duncan in his place, warns Atlas that he will hold him responsible for Shay's subsequent indiscretions. That night, Chris Barker, one of Shay's lieutenants, forces Zoe at gunpoint to phone Duncan and beg him to lend her $25,000, arranging to meet him later that evening at the observatory atop the Houston Justice Building. Upon arriving at the observatory, Duncan finds Barker waiting for him, gun in hand, demanding the money. After Duncan hands over the envelope, Barker announces his plan to kill him anyway, prompting Duncan to shove him over the side of the building. Duncan then hurries to Zoe's apartment, where he finds her severely beaten by Shay, who is still there. As Duncan lashes out at Shay, Atlas arrives and begs Duncan to spare his protégé. Duncan then consents to give Shay a chance at redemption by coercing the uncooperative owner of a refinery into selling his property. When Barker's body is found, federal agents identity him as a member of Constant's syndicate and focus their investigation on Houston. Duncan, meanwhile, double-crosses Shay by alerting the authorities about the sabotage attempt at the refinery. After lobbing a grenade into one of the derricks, Shay is arrested by the police and exposes Atlas' role in the oil hijacking scheme. While trying to flee the authorities, Atlas is shot down in the street. Upon learning of the situation, Constant sends his two thugs, Don Stokes and Kalo, to eliminate Duncan. After arriving in Houston, Constant's enforcers go to Duncan's offices, where, through the intercom, Duncan overhears them pummeling Louis in the anteroom. Fleeing out the back, Duncan phones Zoe, instructs her to pack her things and meet him at the Derrick Café. Still believing in Duncan's rectitude, a dazed Louis notifies the police about his friend's peril. At the Derrick Café, Duncan tricks the sweet, unsuspecting Madge into driving to his apartment and retrieving his clothes and money from the safe. When Madge arrives, she finds Zoe cleaning out the safe, and Zoe then coldly informs Madge that Duncan has double-crossed her. Stuffing her purse with cash, Zoe hurries out of the building but is picked up by Stokes and Kato. After forcing her to divulge Duncan's location, Stokes and Kato shoot her and throw her body out of the moving car. As Duncan waits at the café, Madge, shaken, notifies the police. Stokes and Kato arrive at the café first, however, and shoot it out with Duncan as police sirens wail in the distance. After disposing of his assailants, the wounded Duncan hears Louis, pleading over the police megaphone, to give himself up. With no other alternative, Duncan surrenders.
Jack V. Littlefield
Larry W. Fultz
Charles [h.] Gray
Gene Anderson Jr.
James B. Gordon
The Houston Story
The latter two movies were part of a cycle of low-budget crime films in the mid-1950s that purported to be an "expose" of how complex criminal organizations were set up in major cities, and then broken down by law enforcement. Katzman had success with a film called The Miami Story (1954), directed by Fred F. Sears and starring Barry Sullivan, that set up the formula. This and subsequent entries would shoot for a few days on location to give the story verisimilitude, then quickly wrap shooting on soundstages in Hollywood to keep budgets low. As long as the stories were hard-hitting, realistic, and topical, the public showed interest at the box-office.
The Houston Story, written by Robert E. Kent, looks at corruption in the Texas oil industry. In a pre-credits sequence, oil field worker Frank Duncan (Gene Barry) arrives at the Headquarters of the Houston Police to identify the body of a young woman, found dead off the ship channel. He identifies her as Carrie Hemper, the wife of his late friend, Joe. But Duncan is lying; he knows that Carrie Hemper had actually left his friend and become a nightclub singer under the name Zoe Crane (Barbara Hale). Duncan visits Crane to deliver a violent slap in the face, the dying wish of his friend. The wily Duncan has something else on his mind; he uses his leverage with Crane to get information on her underworld connections, and an introduction to local mob boss "Pauley" Atlas (Edward Arnold). Zoe's boyfriend is Atlas' hot-tempered second-in-command, Gordon Shay (Paul Richards). Duncan's plan is to set up a dummy Petroleum company and install his cab-driver friend Louie Phelan (Frank Jenks) as fall guy if things go bad. The income will come from bribing refinery foremen to allow them to tap into legal lines and steal oil, which is then sold to fly-by-night companies and foreign interests. The expensive plan is approved by the St. Louis-based syndicate boss Emile Constant (John Zaremba), who insists on a non-violent operation. Phelan is threatened by Duncan, though, and plans for gunplay during a raid on oilfield equipment so that Duncan will be on the outs with the organization.
The Houston Story went through a major casting change while in production in 1955. Originally set for the lead role was acclaimed character actor Lee J. Cobb, fresh off his Oscar®-nominated supporting part in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954). In his autobiography I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul, director William Castle wrote that "Houston, Texas is unbearable in August - especially if you're going to make a picture in the oil fields. The humidity was oppressive. Filming a fight sequence in the oil fields at night was tough enough without having an exhausted star. Cobb was pale and haggard. Something was wrong. Watching him rehearse a scene where he was supposed to lift a man bodily and throw him to the ground, worried me." Castle writes that he called a halt to filming and later that night, as the cast and crew were staying in Houston's Shamrock Hotel, he was awakened and called to Cobb's room. "He was on the floor, clutching his chest, writhing in pain. 'My chest!' he moaned. 'Call my father.' Instead, I called the hotel doctor and got Lee to a hospital... Still in my bathrobe, I left Lee's hospital [room]. As I appeared in the corridor, a frantic nurse rushed up to me and grabbed my arm. 'Mr. Cobb - you should be back in bed!' The nurse started to pull me back into the room..." Director Castle did indeed resemble Cobb in both build and in facial features. There were three more days of location shots to finish in Houston, so Castle filled in for the ailing actor.
Castle and Katzman were willing to put the completion of The Houston Story on hold and wait for Cobb's return, but the actor was suffering from exhaustion and would be out of commission for several months. The part would have to be recast; as Castle writes, "Katzman insisted on a relatively new actor in pictures - Gene Barry, a fine actor, but as unlike Lee J. Cobb as anyone could be." A showman to the end, Castle is prone to exaggeration in his autobiography, and he makes a greater claim of appearing in The Houston Story than a viewing of the film bears out. He is clearly visible, however, in a shot where the Duncan character is perched on the platform of an oil derrick, surreptitiously watching an equipment theft operation. Castle's stocky build and light hair is a poor match for Barry's close-ups in the same scene.
The Houston Story also features a plum part for Barbara Hale, who later became known for the "good girl" role of Della Street in the long-running Perry Mason series on television. In this film she makes the most of a femme fatale part, even getting to sing "Put the Blame on Mame" (which Columbia owned and trotted out every time they needed a sultry nightclub number). Also noteworthy in the cast is veteran Edward Arnold, in one of his last roles before his death in 1956. Arnold is very convincing as a middle-rung hood who has aged past his effectiveness; he is terrified of becoming useless to his boss, and he lashes out like a pathetic wounded animal in a memorable scene when he is caught trying to take it on the lam. As for Lee J. Cobb, he eventually recovered, and the following year starred in a later entry in the loose Columbia series of Big City crime dramas, Miami Expose , directed by Fred F. Sears. This film also costarred Edward Arnold, in his final role.
Houston, Texas was quite the boom town in the 1950s, and those familiar with the area will enjoy seeing The Houston Story and its pristine location shots taken on downtown streets and in Hermann Park. Also on view in the film are such then-new additions to the landscape as The Houston International Airport and the Gulf Freeway connecting Houston and Galveston.
Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: James B. Gordon
Cinematography: Henry Freulich
Production Design: Paul Palmentola
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff (uncredited)
Film Editing: Edwin H. Bryant
Cast: Gene Barry (Frank Duncan), Barbara Hale (Zoe Crane), Edward Arnold (Paul Atlas), Paul Richards (Gordon Shay), Jeanne Cooper (Madge), Frank Jenks (Louie Phelan), John Zaremba (Emile Constant), Chris Alcaide (Chris Barker), Jack V. Littlefield (Willie), Paul Levitt (Duke), Fred Krone (Marsh), Pete Kellett (Kalo)
by John M. Miller
The Houston Story
According to a 1954 Daily Variety news item, Orville Hampton was initially hired to write the screenplay, but the extent of his contribution to the final film has not been determined. According to a June 1955 Daily Variety news item, Lee J. Cobb was initially cast in the role of "Frank Duncan." After the start of filming in early May, however, Cobb collapsed from fatigue. Production was suspended until early July when Gene Barry was signed to replace Cobb. The 6 May Hollywood Reporter production chart credits Arthur Kirbach with sound, but he is replaced by Josh Westmoreland in the July 1955 charts. According to the Variety review, some background footage was shot in Houston, Texas.