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Monday, 2 June 2008

The Houston Story (1956)

I recorded this one on a whim. The blurb wasn't what drew me in: 'A Texas oil driller schemes to steal millions of dollars in oil'. It was the name with the directorial credit: William Castle. Time was I knew Castle for one thing, as the maestro of the gimmick, who made exploitation classic after classic in the sixties, mostly horror and mostly featuring Vincent Price. Remember films like House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts or The Tingler? All William Castle flicks with memorable gimmicks like fright breaks, vibrating theater seats or free life insurance policies for anyone who died during the showing of the film. I remember them well, even though I saw them much later on home video.

After that I discovered a second period at the other end of Castle's career, that of entries in B movie detective series. He made four Crime Doctor movies and four featuring the Whistler, and I've seen all but one. These weren't undying classics but they were solid entries in enjoyable series and it made me wonder all the more about the various movies that fit between these bookend career periods. There are 26 of these, after The Crime Doctor's Gamble and before Macabre, and they include such suggestive titles as Johnny Stool Pigeon, Slaves of Babylon and The Saracen Blade; Serpent of the Nile, The Gentleman from Nowhere and New Orleans Uncensored. Of course the title that comes along first is the stunningly dull The Houston Story but fortunately it's better than the title.

Rather than a dry historical dramatisation, it's a film noir about an ambitious young man called Frank Duncan who finds his way into organised crime in order to make five million bucks a year out of stealing oil from the fields of Houston. He has a plan to reach the crime bosses who can finance his operation: he identifies a suicide victim as Carrie Hemper, a chorus girl from Oklahoma, knowing full well that it isn't her because its all a ruse to reach the real Carrie Hemper who is in with the mob. He knows his stuff, being an oil driller himself, and he's done his homework: he knows which 20 foreman can be bought in order to steal 30% of production from 11 Houston oil fields. He even has the balls to make power plays within the mob itself.

To my eyes, Gene Barry plays a decent and believable Frank Duncan, sleazy and corrupt but intelligent and dedicated and when the need arises, ruthless and brutal. He's not memorable like the early gangsters but he's solid in a role that requires him to stand out without standing out. However his career would suggest that this sort of thing is hardly what he's known for. While he had a film career (I know him only from George Pal's version of The War of the Worlds), he's most known for television, where he became a gentleman hero in a succession of lead roles beginning a a couple of years after this one. He followed up four years as Bat Masterson with four as Amos Burke in Burke's Law, a couple more as Gene Bradley, The Adventurer, and a rotating lead spot in The Name of the Game, so it would seem that most would watch this and be shocked at him playing a bad guy.

I know some of the rest of the cast better. One of the couple of girlfriends Duncan cultivates is a nightclub singer played by Barbara Hale who was highly effective as the tough noir dame but who found her fame a year later as Della Street, secretary to Raymond Burr's Perry Mason. There are a number of bad guys that Duncan takes out on his ruthless climb up the mob ladder, but the one most recognisable to me is Edward Arnold, who unlike the others was very much at the end of his career with only two films left before his death the same year as this film was released. He'd been acting on screen as far back as 1916 and had racked up quite a few memorable roles, many for Frank Capra, where he'd epitomise his corrupt politician persona in films like Mr Smith Goes to Washington. I've seen nearly twenty of his films and he's always a reliable character actor but I may still be missing his most memorable part, as the second half of the title in The Devil Meets Daniel Webster.

So I'm still looking for the middle era William Castles. There are no gimmicks here, just gritty film noir, a tougher version of what he was turning out early on for the Whistler and the Crime Doctor. Most viewers would probably either appreciate it or hate it for the presence of Gene Barry as the bad guy, but to me it's just a solid story that tells nothing new. It's watchable and engrossing but nothing special, however much better it is than its title. But those other mid era William Castle titles still intrigue me.

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