The Houston Story (1956): Classic Movie Review

The Houston StoryThe Houston Story 1956

USA 1956, 79 minutes, black & white, Columbia Pictures. Director: William Castle, Producer: Sam Katzman, Written by: Robert E. Kent as James B. Gordon. Cast: Gene Barry, Barbara Hale, Edward Arnold, Paul Richards, Jeanne Cooper.

Plot summary: Frank Duncan plays a game of double-cross with Houston’s syndicate, trying to steal one of the mobsters’ girl while getting rich on black gold.

Review: The Houston Story is a classic film noir with all its sultry elements of crime, drama and suspense. Gene Barry plays Frank Duncan, an oil field worker who is trying to outsmart the local mob by getting to their money in order to get rich himself. His scheme is dangerous and reckless, especially when he starts to play with fire and gets involved with one of the mobsters’ girlfriend, a lusciously enigmatic night club entertainer called Zoe. As interlaced as the plot, the characters’ fate is inevitable yet inscrutable in a gripping way. Barry’s performance is absorbing, his character convincing as he tries to keep ahead in a world of money and deceit. He is surrounded by a stunning cast of supporting actors whose characters are ruthless and mysterious to boot.

Barbara Hale (who would start shooting the Perry Mason pilot the same year of The Houston Story’s release) plays Zoe Crane, the female lead who is full of allure. An enigma of her own making, elegantly walking a tightrope to survive the dangerous game she finds herself entrapped in. It is never clear if she’s a victim or a player, if she tries to escape or trick the men surrounding her. She is positively intoxicating, a captivating beauty with her cropped platinum curls, a seductress whose glittering introduction merges class with sin. Her enticing wardrobe and memorable performance of “Put the Blame on Mame” (originally introduced in Rita Hayworth’s famous film Gilda in 1946) sets the tone for the entire movie and beautifully foreshadows her own doom.

Jeanne Cooper plays Duncan’s fiancée Madge, a waitress who’s the opposite to Hale’ femme fatale: earthbound and practical. Her chemistry with Barry is less steamy, her scenes with Barbara Hale pure fun. Also starrind Edward Arnold and directed by William Castle, The Houston Story is fast and keeps you on your toes, the many twists and turns leaving you breathless and wondering who will survive this net of greed and violence. It is beautifully shot in black and white and blessed with consistently good actors. Originally cast with Lee J. Cobb as the plotting lead, The Houston Story is a real gem for anyone who’s fond of noir, a film you may find yourself returning to over and over again. It is now available on DVD in the Sony Pictures Choice Collection.

 Melanie Simone is a writer with a degree in American Studies and English. On Talking Classics, she savors her love for vintage Hollywood.

  • Wayne P.

    This film has the look of a cracker-jack film noir and it was William Castles last before he focused strictly on his “gimmick” horror movie phase. Barbara Hale (looking blonde?;) seems smoking hot, from the poster, as a high-glam, most likely low class femme fatale and probably plays the role expertly…quite different from her straight laced character we all know and love from Perry Mason! This was also near to the last good effort from the great character actor Edward Arnold before he died later that year and who always seems to play the heavy so well, but will have to check it out based on your fine review and see if he does again here more so than Gene Barry…am guessing they both play their parts to perfection, as per usual…thanks for the tipoff!