Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Houston Story (1956)

The Houston Story belongs to what may be one of the rarest of all film noir sub-genres - the Texas noir. The Lone Star State may not be an obvious noir setting but it works pretty well in this underrated movie.

Gene Barry is Frank Duncan, an oil driller with big dreams. He’s come up with what he thinks is a great money-making scheme. All he needs is the finance to get it rolling. The finance will have to come from the Mob. You see, Frank’s scheme is not exactly honest. His idea is to tap into existing oil wells and steal the oil, on a very large scale. First he needs to make some mob connections, which he does in a rather ingenious but obscure way by planting a story that a certain dead body that has been found belongs to a popular canary, a canary who just happens to be the girlfriend of a mobster.

Frank eventually achieves his object - he gets a meeting with Paul Atlas (Edward Arnold). Atlas controls the Mob’s operations in this territory. Frank sells Atlas on his plan. Frank is now in, but he’s not as far in as he thinks he is. What Frank fails to realise is that even though the Mob needs his knowledge of the oil business they will never trust him completely. He’s an outsider, and he’s an ambitious outsider which makes him even more suspect.

An even bigger problem for Frank is Zoe Crane (Barbara Hale). She’s the singer he used to make contact with Atlas. Zoe’s boyfriend is Gordy Shay (Paul Richards), Paul Atlas’s second-in-command. Shay is already annoyed by Frank’s raid rise in the organisation and he’s also insanely jealous where Zoe is concerned. And it’s pretty obvious that Zoe and Frank Duncan have been making eyes at each other. In the fullness of time Shay’s consequent dislike of Frank will have serious repercussions, for both Shay and Frank.

Gene Barry is best remembered for his starring role in the immensely popular early 60s TV series Burke’s Law. The easy charm he displayed in that series stands him in good stead here. Frank is a guy who uses his charm to get what he wants, especially from women. The doubt that one has initially is whether Barry can adequately convey Frank’s ruthlessness and ambition. In fact he does a very fine job. Frank is a convincing crook but his essential likeability ensures that he never loses the audience’s sympathy, and that sympathy is of course essential in a film noir.

Barbara Hale makes an effective femme fatale. Zoe is every bit as ruthless as Frank, and possibly even more so. She is not interested in a man unless he has power and money, especially money, and she will dump a guy in the twinkling of an eye if he is no longer able to provide her with what she wants.

Jeanne Cooper is adequate in the role of Madge, a waitress in a cafe frequented by oil drillers. She’s another of Frank’s women, but she is no real competition for the glamorous Zoe. Edward Arnold does well as Paul Atlas, a mobster with a couple of weaknesses that will play an important role as the plot unfolds. Paul Richards is a bit too much of a weasel to carry off the role of Gordy convincingly.

This is one of a number of crime B-movies with a touch of noir that were directed by William Castle before he found his true niche in horror. Castle was always keenly aware of the golden rule that whatever else you might do you must never let the audience become bored. There’s not much chance of that happening in this taut 79-minute feature. Robert E. Kent’s script avoids too many obvious noir clich├ęs.

While Frank is a crook, or at least an aspiring crook, right from the get-go he can still be seen as a noir hero. He’s driven by his ambition and his greed but the world of big-time organised crime turns out to be a whole lot nastier than he’d expected. He’s dishonest but he’s not evil enough to fit easily and successfully into this world.

Sony have released this movie as a made-on-demand DVD. Picture quality is slightly grainy but generally pretty good. Sound quality is fine. The transfer is widescreen and anamorphic.

The Houston Story is a nifty little B noir that benefits from its slightly unusual setting. Well-crafted and well-acted and thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

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