House of Numbers (1957, USA)

House of Numbers - Jack Palance as Bill Judlow, finding his way in San Quentin

This a good, old-fashioned escape story. And an unheralded one at that. It’s a thriller and a noirish love story, rolled into one. With a twist – as all good, old-fashioned escape stories should have.

Arnie Judlow (Jack Palance) has a problem with anger. A one-time boxer, he is two years into a life sentence inside San Quentin after using his ‘lethal weapon’ fists to beat to death a man who may or may not have been flirting with his wife. He has also just thrown a guard over a railing two tiers up, but the authorities don’t yet know that he’s the culprit.

With his older brother Bill (also played by Palance), he devises a plan. Bill and Arnie’s beautiful wife, Ruth (the Monroesque Barbara Lang), rent a house near the prison, and get quickly to work. They need to; if the guard recovers consciousness and can identify Arnie, it’s likely that he’ll go the gas chamber.

The plan is that Bill breaks into the prison, swaps identities with Arnie (who is a bit rougher-looking, and a bit shorter), allowing Arnie to dig a man-sized hole in the industries area of the prison. It might be slightly less-than-credible that Bill could negotiate his way around the prison in place of his brother, but before you can get too sceptical they then swap roles again; Bill breaks back out of the prison and then, while his kid brother hides himself in the camouflaged hole, commits an attention-grabbing carjacking to convince the jail authorities and the police that Arnie has really escaped. It’s then, after the search inside the prison has been called off, that Arnie plans to go over the wall.

It all goes well, but for two things. Next door to Bill and Ruth’s house is a prying guard, Henry Nova (Harold J Stone), who shows too much interest in (i) Ruth and (ii) whatever else is going on. And then Ruth and Bill pretty much succumb to the sexual tension between them, which leaves Arnie pretty much on his own. Which is no doubt where he deserves to be. The twists and turns around these complications ensure that what starts as a standard escape thriller is prevented from being standard after all.

Set and filmed inside San Quentin, with the obvious co-operation of the Warden and hordes of prisoner extras, it is a curious relationship between prison and filmmakers. It seems that the Warden was ultimately prepared to allow the public to believe that the prison’s security could be easily defeated in return for a single compliment from Bill when he returns after his brief stint inside: “I was surprised, ” he tells Ruth. “I guess it’s as good as a prison can be.”

Two cameos also help make the film; one from Edward Platt (Get Smart‘s Chief) as the thoroughly reasonable Warden (maybe this was Warden Harley O Teets’ other payoff), and Timothy Carey playing (as always) an odd cellmate.

House of Numbers deserves to be better known. It’s competent and entertaining, and contains some great visuals of San Quentin. If only I could stop thinking of it as the Patty Duke of prison movies.

House of Numbers #2 - House of Numbers - Jack Palance as Arnie Judlow, this time, speaking out of the side of his mouth to Bill, who is concealed in the crate House of Numbers #3 - the Monroesque Barbara Lang as Ruth Judlow

Posted on June 25th, 2011 at 10:33 pm. Updated on June 25th, 2011 at 10:43 pm.

#135 in the Top 500

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