Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tonight's Movie: The Houston Story (1956)

THE HOUSTON STORY is a somewhat muddled but ultimately worthwhile mob story directed by William Castle.

Gene Barry plays Frank Duncan, who aspires to make money and move up in organized crime via an ingenious plan to steal oil.

Frank needs financing and takes his plan to Paul Atlas (Edward Arnold), who runs the "southwest region" for mobster head Emile Constant (John Zaremba). Before long Duncan has eliminated both Atlas and Atlas's righthand man Gordon Shay (Paul Richards), expecting to earn Mr. Constant's admiration. Instead Constant, concerned about all the trouble in the southwest region, sends two hitmen to eliminate Duncan.

When I read about THE HOUSTON STORY at Vienna's Classic Hollywood, I was immediately intrigued by the notion of wholesome Barbara Hale as a film noir femme fatale. I had missed seeing the film at the Noir City Hollywood festival a couple of years ago and didn't realize she played such an atypical role in the film.

I really enjoyed Hale as Zoe, a platinum blonde chanteuse who starts out as mistress to Shay but then gets together with Duncan. It's a very different look and part for Hale, and she's definitely one of the main reasons to watch the movie. It was quite something watching her sing "Put the Blame on Mame" in what sounded like her own singing voice. She also has an amusing scene where she attempts to fool the hitmen by acting drunk. She's quite effective as a woman who is always looking out for No. 1.

The first few minutes of the film alternate between confusing and tedious, as Duncan sets an elaborate plot in motion regarding a dead body, then goes home to his rented room in the home of pal Louie Phelan (Frank Jenks) and Louie's wife (Claudia Bryar). In my opinion this section of the film should have been tossed out and something way more interesting put in its place.

Fortunately the film picks up steam considerably once Frank's "business" scheme is in motion, with lively performances by Hale and Arnold adding considerable interest. I especially enjoyed Zaremba as the mob boss who claims to want to avoid violence at all costs ("it's bad for business") but who reveals himself to be a very lethal man. It was such an interesting performance, I would enjoyed seeing a lot more of him and a lot less of Barry.

There were a couple story elements later in the film which I found slightly confusing, but despite its flaws, THE HOUSTON STORY picks up interest as it goes along and has a satisfying conclusion. I was ultimately glad I'd checked it out.

I did think Barry was something of a weak link in the film, playing a role originally intended for Lee J. Cobb. (Cobb bowed out due to ill health.) I liked Barry fine in WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) but he's just not very compelling in this. I was mentally comparing THE HOUSTON STORY to a film with a somewhat similar plot, 711 OCEAN DRIVE (1950), but whereas Edmond O'Brien engendered understanding and sympathy despite being a crook, Barry just comes off as an unlikeable sleaze, particularly when he manipulates his friend Louie, who he ruthlessly sets up as a fall guy, and nice waitress Madge (Jeanne Cooper, who passed away in May).

THE HOUSTON STORY runs 79 minutes and has a script by Robert E. Kent. It was shot in stark black and white by Henry Freulich. There appeared to be some actual location photography of the hitmen arriving at the Houston Airport which is quite effective.

This film is available on DVD-R in the Sony Choice Collection available from Warner Archive, Amazon, and other sellers.

It can be rented from ClassicFlix.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Yep. Blondie really puts over the Mame number. I'll bet that was a fun role for Ms. Hale.

It's easy to overlook the flaws in this caper due to its pace and dedicated cast. You've made me want to check it out after too many years.

5:53 AM  
Blogger Silver Screenings said...

I've never seen this one, but I will watch for it. It'll be interesting to see Barbara Hale in this role.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Wasn't Barbara Hale fun in this one, Caftan Woman? Hope you enjoy revisiting it. Silver Screenings, I'd enjoy hearing what you think of Hale in such an atypical role if you have the chance to see it.

Best wishes,

10:35 PM  

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