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Arnie Judlow, an inmate at San Quentin prison serving a life sentence for murder, devises a daring plan with his wife and his brother Bill to help him escape, part of which involves Bill and Arnie's wife posing as a married couple and moving to a house near the prison. Although the plan appears to go smoothly at first, it soon runs into a few snags--the couple move next door to a suspicious prison guard who knows Arnie and, more importantly, Bill and his brother's wife begin to find themselves attracted to each other. Written by
Palance plays double role in oddly sedate Big-House break movie
As director and screenwriter, Russell Rouse usually had something a little different up his sleeve, at least when he was toiling in film noir. His D.O.A remains one of the best-remembered films of the cycle, but he also contributed The Well, The Thief, Wicked Woman, and New York Confidential each of them at least some distance off the beaten track. His films tended to be less ostentatious than their rivals quieter even (none quieter than The Thief, that dialogue-free experiment).
House of Numbers was his last urban crime drama; he would go on to helm a few westerns and, in 1966, the dreadful The Oscar. But House of Numbers shows him in reasonably fine form. Jack Palance plays brothers: Arnie, in San Quentin for killing a man in a fight (he was a boxer so his hands are `lethal weapons') and Bill, who moves to San Francisco to spring him out. His helpmate in this Mission-Impossible-style scheme is Arnie's wife Ruth (Barbara Lang). The scheme is far from simple, involving Bill's smuggling himself into prison for a spell and posing as Arnie (not so far-fetched, since the same actor plays both roles). But things go wrong, such as Bill and Ruth happening to rent a house next to that of a prison guard who knows Arnie, and then falling in love with one another....
Though House of Numbers may be the least violent Big-House story ever filmed, Rouse doesn't let the reins go slack. He twists the plot along to its surprisingly sedate conclusion, and brings it off. Maybe the most memorable aspect of the film is Barbara Lang's subdued and touching performance. This blonde stunner's film credits could be counted on the fingers of a maimed hand, and that's both a puzzle and a shame.
The score, too is memorable, thanks to André Previn. His galley years in Hollywood, before he left to become a `serious' conductor and composer, were spent on a startling number of low-budget productions, including many noirs. He did them proud. Had he teamed up with a director of auteurist aspirations, like Hitchcock, he might have become legendary for his scores, like Korngold or Herrmann or Webb. (But then, we might not have gotten his opera A Streetcar Named Desire.)
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