During a weekend side-trip to Reno, Nevada, college friends Brick (Keith), Al (Madison), Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews) and Roy (Alvy Moore) visit the Harold's Club casino.
After an hour spent gambling and socializing, the group prepares to leave. Ronnie, however, has lost money playing roulette and must cash a check at the cashier's window. He is accompanied there by Roy but, unbeknownst to either of them, the cashier is being threatened by a man with a gun. Using a concealed security alarm, the cashier alerts casino officials, who apprehend not only the would-be robber, but also Roy and Ronnie. Al persuades the police to release Roy and Ronnie, but the inquisitive Ronnie has become obsessed with the idea of a spectacular casino robbery, and he begins forming his own plans to rob Harold's Club after he overhears one of the police officers say, "There's no way it [robbing Harold's Club] can be done."
Back at college, the incident is seemingly forgotten, though Ronnie begins developing his plans in earnest. Al also reestablishes his relationship with his girlfriend, Kaye (Kim Novak), who has recently become a singer at a local nightclub. Al takes Brick, Roy and Ronnie to see one of her shows. After the performance, Brick, a Korean War veteran, is provoked into fighting a fellow student over a former girlfriend and, afterward, he suffers from the effects of a dissociative psychotic episode due to an ongoing battle with posttraumatic stress disorder. Later that night, Al encourages a distraught Brick to return to a veteran’s hospital for treatment, but he refuses.
Later, Ronnie finalizes his plan to rob Harold’s Club. Claiming that the robbery would be an adventurous "first" in their otherwise ordinary lives, Ronnie reveals the plan to Brick and Roy, maintaining that all the money would be returned, thereby ensuring that no one involved would be guilty of a prosecutable crime. Though initially skeptical, Brick and Roy gradually abandon their misgivings. The wealthy Ronnie then uses his personal inheritance funds to purchase an untraceable trailer and car and fabricate a wooden cart that is identical to the cash carts used at Harold's — the most important component of the heist.
Ronnie determines that the robbery can only go ahead if Al participates, maintaining that at least four people will be needed for the dangerously complex operation. But Brick, Roy and Ronnie agree that Al will not go along with the robbery if he is made aware of it beforehand. Coincidentally, the day before the robbery, Al proposes to Kaye, and they decide to go to Reno with the others to get married right away.
On the way to Reno, Al recognizes the cart's design while riding in the trailer and inadvertently turns on a small reel-to-reel recorder hidden inside the cart itself and listens to a sinister recording. Ronnie reveals his robbery plans to Kaye and Al. Shocked, they refuse to participate.
Brick then pulls out a revolver and seizes control. Fearing a life of destitution and confinement, the increasingly volatile and disturbed Brick explains that the robbery will go ahead as intended, but with one difference: the money will not be returned. Brick threatens to kill Al if anyone attempts to sabotage the plan.
Once they arrive at the casino, the robbery is carried out efficiently as Reno’s casino district is filled with costumed partiers celebrating a cowboy-themed fête. In the chaotic festivities, the disguised Brick, Ronnie and Al blend into the crowd and convince a cart operator (William Conrad) to retrieve cash from the money room, using the prerecorded message to make him believe that there is a desperate man with a gun in the cart who will shoot him if he does not cooperate.
After the robbery, Brick leaves the others behind and escapes with the money, but Al pursues him into a casino parking structure. Kaye, having alerted police, follows them, and a tense standoff ensues. Ultimately, Al convinces Brick to give up peacefully. No one else is arrested and Al and Kaye embrace on a crowded street.Kim Novak as Kaye Greylek (singing voice was dubbed by Jo Ann Greer)
Brian Keith as Brick
Guy Madison as Al Mercer
Kerwin Mathews as Ronnie
Alvy Moore as Roy
William Conrad as Eric Berg
Jack Dimond as Francis Spiegelbauer
Jean Willes as Virginia
Additionally, though not her film debut, this was one of Novak's first screen appearances. She was one of the last actors to be signed to a studio contract and to be recruited through the "old studio system" by producer Harry Cohn.
The film was praised upon its release by A. H. Weiler, the film critic at The New York Times, who cited, "brisk direction, crisp, idiomatic and truly comic dialogue" as being chief among its positive qualities, but held reservations about the film's development of characters and back-story. Contemporary reviewer Richard Harland Smith has reported that Kim Novak received, "favorable, albeit condescending reviews" for her portrayal of "night-club chanteuse" Kaye Greylek, which improved her status at Columbia Pictures.
Released in 1955, 5 Against the House is an early example of a filmed heist, and an early film depiction of casino-robbery, to be later typified by, among others, Ocean's 11, its remake and sequels. Martin Scorsese has indicated that his 1995 film Casino was influenced by Karlson's own production.
On November 3, 2009, Sony Pictures released the film on standard-definition DVD as a part of their collection Film Noir Classics, Volume I with other early noir films The Big Heat, The Lineup, Murder by Contract, and The Sniper. The DVD includes film introductions and commentaries by notable filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Christopher Nolan and authors Eddie Muller and James Ellroy.