Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Houston Story (Clover/Columbia, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Houston Story, which I’d recorded off TCM largely on the strength of the original trailer, which made the film look like an exciting action thriller set in and around the oil fields of Houston. Gene Barry plays Frank Duncan, a wildcat driller who’s hit upon a scheme for making himself millions without the actual hard (and expensive) preliminaries of actually locating an oil-bearing field and drilling exploratory wells: he’ll bribe foremen in fields that are already producing and build his own pipelines to siphon off their oil into his own refinery, then sell the oil products therefrom either to black-market brokers or sinister foreign powers (and you don’t need two guesses to realize who a 1956 audience would have read the “sinister foreign powers” as being — the Soviet Union, certainly, and “Red” China if you took the plural seriously).

The scheme needs some seed capital, and to get it Duncan seeks out Paul Atlas (Edward Arnold, billed third and still an authoritative actor even though he looks way too old for this sort of thing), Houston representative of a nationwide crime syndicate headed by Emile Constant (John Zaremba). Atlas and his sidekick, Gordon Shay (Paul Richards), want to tolerate Duncan’s presence as long as it takes to implement his scheme, then get rid of him (either financially, physically or both), but Constant talks Atlas into keeping Duncan on and Shay becomes dispensable — so much so that he organizes an ambush and tries to kill Duncan himself (on, out of all unlikely locations, the rooftop observatory on top of the Justice Department building!), but Shay himself ends up dying in the scene when Duncan, acting in self-defense, pitches him off the observation balcony to the street quite a few stories below.

There are also, of course, romantic rivalries, as good-girl Madge (Jeanne Cooper), a waitress at a café called The Derrick (a neon sign of an oil derrick, not that much smaller than the real thing, with the words “The Derrick” on it advertises this establishment) has the hots for Duncan, but he’s only interested in Atlas’s mistress, sultry cabaret singer Zoe (Barbara Hale), who performs “Put the Blame on Mame” to what I suspect was the same pre-recording by the same voice double used in Rita Hayworth’s vehicle Gilda a decade earlier. There are two main problems with this film; first, the script by Robert E. Kent is incredibly dull — we hear about all these exciting thriller-type scenes out in the oilfields but we don’t see any of them (there must have been some unusually interesting ballgames during the two or three days Kent was working on this one!) — and second, the leads are completely miscast. Barbara Hale is enough of a professional that she does her best with a role that takes her about as far away from Della Street as can be imagined, and she doesn’t do as much harm to this film as Gene Barry does.

We’re so used to seeing Barry as a good guy in movies like The Atomic City and the 1953 The War of the Worlds that we — or at least I — expected for the first half or so of the film to see an exposition scene explaining that he’s really a federal agent out to bust Constant’s crime syndicate by infiltrating it with a particularly lucrative scheme. There are a few cool things in the movie — like the board meeting of Constant’s syndicate, written and shot to look as much as possible like a legitimate board meeting of a major conglomerate with Constant as a CEO upbraiding his division chiefs for not meeting their profit projections; the confrontation between Duncan and Shea and the bizarre appearance of the sign advertising “The Derrick” the first time we see it — but for the most part this is a major disappointment, especially since the director was William Castle and he’d made enough stylish thrillers in the Whistler series (also for Columbia) a decade earlier that one would have thought he’d bring more atmospherics into this film instead of shooting it all too plainly. The Houston Story was a good idea for a movie but faltered very badly in the execution!