The Gambler from Natchez

I remember when I was first toying with the idea of starting up a blog on movies, almost ten years ago now, and wondering about whether or not I wanted to focus on certain genres or types of film. Back then lots of the big entertainment sites took what looked like a shotgun approach of covering as wide a range of material as possible and I felt the best way to break into this digital scribbling was to specialize. The question though was what to specialize in. I eventually settled on writing primarily (though by no means exclusively) on westerns of the classic era as that was, and remains, my favorite area. But I’d mulled over a focus on noir thrillers (which do figure fairly prominently as it stands) and even war movies for a while. Another genre that I recall giving some thought to was the swashbuckler/adventure picture yet I ultimately felt that had limited appeal. Anyway, all this leads me in a slightly circuitous way to The Gambler from Natchez (1954), something of a hybrid which blends together elements of both the swashbuckler and the western to produce a pretty enjoyable confection.

We follow Vance Colby (Dale Robertson) on his way back to New Orleans having served in the army of Texas under Sam Houston. The uniform tells us Colby is a soldier, and a run in with an ill-tempered card player reveals his familiarity with games of chance. The fact is he’s the son of a renowned gambler and immensely proud of it too. His defense of the honor of his family leads to a fight (the first of many) and also the acquaintance of a kindred spirit in Antoine Barbee (Thomas Gomez) and his spitfire daughter Melanie (Debra Paget), two people who will figure prominently in events to follow. In brief, Colby is soon to learn that his father is dead, slain after being accused of cheating at a game of Blackjack. It looks very much as though the three men responsible, led by foppish but ruthless plantation owner André Rivage (Kevin McCarthy), had other reasons for the killing, and the rest of the tale is taken up with the unraveling of their scheme and the quest for justice.

I’ve tagged The Gambler from Natchez as a western here even though, as I mentioned earlier, it’s at best a hybrid form with arguably more of a swashbuckling flavor about it. However, I hope the presence of Robertson (and to some extent Paget) and a story from the pen of Gerald Drayson Adams makes my stretching of the definitions of the genre just about permissible, but I won’t mind if anyone strongly objects. Director Henry Levin moves everything along at a nice even pace, never getting bogged down in unnecessary asides nor skimming over the important parts. Cameraman Lloyd Ahern ensures everything looks as sumptuous as possible while Levin get maximum impact from the action set pieces – a nocturnal chase through the reeds and a brace of duels, one with pistols and the other with rapiers.

Dale Robertson was very much a western star. Sure he worked in other genres but even a quick glance through his filmography shows how much it leans towards the Old West. A film like The Gambler from Natchez called for his customary ruggedness and also a degree of suavity that we don’t always see. It’s a balancing act which I reckon he pulls off perfectly successfully – the polish of the climactic duel with McCarthy standing as proof of that. And McCarthy was one of the most versatile actors to ply his trade in Hollywood, taking on heroic and villainous roles as lead or support with ease – he’s likely most famous for his work in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film I hope to feature here sooner rather than later. Suffice to say he sneers with some style in this movie. Debra Paget’s looks meant she was an ideal fit for westerns and exotica alike. She’s very good as the fiery river denizen with a particularly determined streak and plays well off the cool Robertson. Thomas Gomez is another of those whose presence I always appreciate in a film. He could bring tragedy and pathos to his parts as in Force of Evil yet also possessed a lovely light touch and indulged in that latter quality here.

The Gambler from Natchez has been released in the US as a MOD disc from Fox and had also available in Spain as a pressed DVD via Fox/Impulso for some time before that. I have that Spanish disc which presents the film in what I take is an open matte transfer – IMDb suggest the correct aspect ratio is 1.66:1 and that may or may not be right, I’d have thought anything up to 1.78:1 would be possible. That aside, the movie looks reasonably good, a bit of a clean up would bring out more detail and perhaps add a bit more pop to the colors, but it’s quite watchable as it is.

This is a film which is hard to classify neatly in any one genre, drifting  between the western, the swashbuckler and the adventure yarn. None of that is especially important of course, what does matter is how effectively all these aspects  come together. In my opinion, it all gels and therefore works. The film has  no pretensions of being anything other than a smooth piece of entertainment and goes about its business with style, excitement and wit.  A good film.


39 thoughts on “The Gambler from Natchez

  1. I’m surprised – shocked, even – that this title is new to me. Also, I am pleased because it sounds like a dandy. Coincidentally, I just watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the first time in years. It was the hubby’s first viewing. I know the presence of Debra Paget will pique his interest in The Gambler from Natchez. He stopped denying that crush years ago.

    • Then I’m happy to have brought it to your attention, Patricia. I’ve seen it a few times now and still enjoy it. It’s not terribly deep and doesn’t have any major point to make but it is entertaining and very well put together. Try it out when you get an opportunity.

  2. Hi, Colin – wanted to take this opportunity to recommend a superb book to you and your followers. It is Glenn Frankel’s “High Noon – the Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic”. It is a deeply researched, well written study of the making of the film, set against a detailed history of the anti-Communist witchunts of the 1940s and 1950s which were aimed at Hollywood. Western fans will love the account of the film’s creation and the depth of the portraits of the producer, scriptwriter, Director and star. I can also heartily recommend his equally brilliant previous book about the making of “The Searchers”,

    • Thanks for flagging that up, Steve. It sounds like a very interesting book and one I’d surely be keen on reading.
      Strangely enough, I’ve been watching a few Gary Cooper westerns over the last week or so and was just thinking about High Noon.

  3. Colin-I pretty much agree with everything you say here-
    your review is very fair as always, and typically well balanced.
    I thought the gambling scenes carried a real degree of tension.
    I really miss the Spanish Impulso imprint which gave us some great
    releases several years back-now Spain just seems to be “bootleg central”
    with various outfits “ripping off” official releases generally as BD/r’s
    This is very tough on independent labels who need all the sales that they
    get-I refuse to support these Spanish Pirates.

    As you well know by now I often go over the same ground but I thought
    I would make one “final” trip to the well regarding Panoramic Productions
    Panoramic was a deal set up by Leonard Goldstein with Fox to make a series
    of medium budget pictures (approx $450,000-$500.000) to keep Fox contract
    players busy while the studio were busy preparing CinemaScope epics like
    The films were mainly made over at the RKO lot.Goldstein had already had a
    most impressive track record over at Universal.Goldstein’s business associate
    was Robert L Jacks who was also Darryl Zanuck’s son in law.
    The Panoramic films gave work to lots of up & coming talent like Richard Boone,
    Lee Marvin,Peter Graves,Debra Paget,Anne Bancroft,Cameron Mitchell,James Best,
    Lee Van Cleef,Jeffrey Hunter and many others.
    Arguably the best of the Panoramic’s was Hugo Fregonese’s THE RAID and possibly
    the best known one was the 3D thriller GORILLA AT LARGE.
    WHITE FEATHER (released after Goldstein’s passing) was the only Panoramic
    picture made in CinemaScope and cost more than double the other films.
    Colin-I do recall has stated that,one day he might review WHITE FEATHER.

    During the Panoramic period Goldstein also set up his own imprint (with Jacks)
    Leonard Goldstein Productions. Their first,the excellent STRANGER ON HORSEBACK
    also employed the talents of Kevin McCarthy as the heavy.
    Mr Goldstein passed away before STRANGER ON HORSEBACK was released and
    two other films,both excellent, were released later; ROBBER’S ROOST and the
    blistering abrasive Noir BLACK TUESDAY.;the latter title sadly is currently
    on the missing list.

    Robert L Jacks carried on making excellent films in the same vein like
    THE MAN FROM DEL RIO.THE KILLER IS LOOSE (soon to debut on Blu Ray)
    A KISS BEFORE DYING,THE PROUD ONES (originally intended to be directed
    by Gerd Oswald and starring Gary Cooper and Guy Madison) BANDIDO,
    BANDOLERO, and the excellent epic TV movie MR HORN starring David
    Carradine and Richard Widmark
    I don’t sadly know who owns the rights to MR HORN but I’d love to see it
    get an official release at some point-the film has stellar production values
    and standout performances from the two leads.

    • Great reply, John, and I see no harm in returning to certain topics./ areas of discussion on occasion – a reminder of some titles of interest never hurts. And you have reminded me that there are a few of those films I intend to feature here at some stage.

  4. Off-topic, but what is the Burt Lancaster movie pictured at the top of the page? I can’t identify the other actor…

    • No worries, Patrick, there’s no such thing as off-topic here. 🙂

      That’s an image from John Sturges’ Gunfight at the OK Corral with Burt and Kirk Douglas in profile. I’ve been getting into the habit of rotating the header images in an effort to have something, sometimes quite tenuous if truth be told, in common with the movie currently featured. Here, I picked up on the gambling aspect and thought of Kirk as the card playing Doc Holliday.

  5. Thanks for that, I reckon i must have seen this at some point, but can i really remember it? Hmmm pass! As for the AR – well, until the advent of 16:9 TVs, it was either 1.66 or 1.85 in the US really, right? 1,75 was used in the UK and parts of the Continent but was it ever used in the US? Also,enjoying the rotation of headers too!

    • So far it’s been positive feedback all the way regarding the header images. It’s just a bit of fun really but it’s nice to know it’s generally popular.
      You’re probably right on the aspect ratio stuff, buddy. I know some people get more passionate about it all but, for myself, the difference between 1.66:1, 1.75:1 and 1.85:1 isn’t enough to get worked up about. I don’t say that’s the right approach and don’t begrudge anyone their say on the matter but it’s of only passing interest to me. Cropped down scope now, that’s a different matter entirely.

  6. Very interesting review to me, Colin, as I have never seen this film – and that despite it starring firm fave, Dale Robertson. Not sure quite why either. Anyroads up, your piece definitely whets my appetite. I need to seek this one out!

    Incidentally, will you be reviewing any of those Gary Cooper westerns you’ve been watching? I rather hope so.

    • It’s not an essential film, Jerry, but it’s a pretty good way to put in an hour and a half.
      As for the Cooper films, while I’m not going to give any guarantees, let’s say it’s possible something may be featured here.

  7. Great review and it has been one of my ‘evergreen’ movie ever since. Happy to note, like me, you have been watching it now and then. I would classify it as a swashbuckling adventure western! Best regards.

    • A swashbuckling adventure western is as good a description as any and the movie ought to please anyone with a liking for any of those component parts.

  8. Colin-just as an add-on to my previous bit, I do hope that you feature WHITE FEATHER at some later date. It was the last of the Panoramic titles and seemed to be a return to the mostly very pro-Native American Westerns Leonard Goldstein made over at Universal.
    WHITE FEATHER released after Mr Goldstein’s passing does carry a credit for him as does CHIEF CRAZY HORSE which was a “work in progress” before he left Universal. I have not entertained the 4K Ultra HD route yet but when the kit becomes cheaper, who knows. I’d certainly go for a 4K remastered version of WHITE FEATHER (on standard Blu Ray) even though I have the Koch Blu Ray which in turn was an improvement over the DVD……where will it all end. I guess it’s only a matter of time before they start releasing 4K remastered Blu Ray’s of films that are already out on Blu Ray- a point in case being Explosive’s forthcoming RIO CONCHOS which I am lead to believe looks wonderful. Thus far only the forthcoming UNFORGIVEN and the dire 3.10 TO YUMA remake are soon to be released in the 4K Ultra HD process.n You may have seen my comment regarding the 4K restoration of SAVAGE PAMPAS over at Kristina’s but the less said about that the better-this German release is far from stellar (IMHO) and NOT the full length version. I guess it’s only a matter of time before we see 4K remasters of classics like THE SEARCHERS, RIO BRAVO and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN-one thing’s for sure they never stop finding ways to part us from our money. I’m sure,by now you have had a chance to have a peek at the 4K remastered version of THE MAN FROM LARAMIE-quiet a revelation don’t you think.

    These days of course there would be lots of flak about actors like Jeff Hunter and Hugh ‘O Brian playing Native Americans as they did in WHITE FEATHER-a different era altogether. I rarely look forward to current Westerns but one that I have my eye on is HOSTILES- the cast and subject matter intrigue me and of course there do seem to be quiet a few Native Americans (and Native Canadians) in the cast. For me UNFORGIVEN was the last truly great Western the only other two I liked were APPALOOSA and SERAPHIM FALLS but for me both fell apart towards the end. I’ve had my hopes dashed many times before but at the moment I have very high hopes regarding HOSTILES. Finally, I wonder when,if ever we are going to see a Native American win an Oscar?

    • I’ll almost certainly feature White Feather at some point, having the Blu-ray now adds a bit of further interest. I can see why 4K restorations are favored by studios as ways of making their titles more attractive for future sales and/or broadcast but it’s not a step I’m keen to invest in myself for home use – the size of display needed to make such an upgrade worthwhile is something I doubt I’ll have. To my eyes, a well encoded Blu-ray struck from a 4K restoration looks more than acceptable – The Man from Laramie, as you mention, is quite fab.

  9. Yipes!!!
    I just cannot figure out the line breaks with your new format the above even more horrific than usual any tips?

    • Not sure what to do about that either, John. You’re not the only one affected, rest assured, as it’s obviously some glitch in the software. I tried to tidy it up a bit but don’t know whether that makes any difference on the display you’re using.

  10. Hi Colin-I’ll try for shorter lines here and see what happens. I feel it’s a long way off before we see less mainstream films getting the 4K Ultra High Def treatment. an ever changing world; later there were about thirty Westerns from the likes of Boetticher,Daves and Sturges in the Ultra High Def format I might be tempted but I totally agree, at the moment I’m more than happy with 4K remasters on standard Blu Ray’s. I would only go for a 4K remastered version if I felt that current Blu Ray showed room for improvement-I certainly feel that way about the Koch Blu Ray of WHITE FEATHER which is a step up from the DVD (Fox USA) which I felt was pretty weak…it’s all in the eye of the beholder,I guess. WHITE FEATHER is a semi-epic Western with stellar production values, if I could fault the film at all it’s perhaps that it wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve a tad too much-perhaps a tad too Liberal-but then again that’s
    no bad thing. At any rate it’s far removed from the nasty racist ARROWHEAD a film which continues to divide Western fans to this day. If say Kino Lorber gave us a 4K restoration of WHITE FEATHER I would be very tempted-in cases like this DVD Beaver is invaluable in making the choices for an upgrade.
    Basically,what I’m saying is that I would go for almost any Fifties CinemaScope Western on Blu Ray with one or two exceptions-in most cases the improvement
    over the DVD is quiet a step up. I’m certainly not that precious about,say Film Noir or any other genre for that matter. I did get the Blu Ray of Allied Artists Sci Fi film WORLD WITHOUT END (recently reviewed by Toby over at The Hannibal8) and the upgrade from DVD is sensational.It’s got us wondering what Allied Artists CinemaScope Westerns like WICHITA and THE FIRST TEXAN would look like in high definition.
    I mentioned Hugo Fregonese’s SAVAGE PAMPAS because it’s being toted as the first Western issued in the 4K Ultra High Def process (also available on standard 4K remastered Blu Ray) I was underwhelmed by the picture quality,imperfections not erased and the fact that it’s the shorter version by about 20 minutes or so. Nick Beal seems to think the p.q. is rather good so again it’s different strokes. On-line reviews of the film state that Robert Taylor looks old,tired and weary, but Nick and myself both feel this is nonsense he’s actually on very good form in the film. Finding pucker master negs for these obscure films is no easy task which is why they are so hard to track down even on DVD. There are tons of obscure Euro Westerns,Peplum,and thrillers that I would love to see surface if decent elements could be sourced. SAVAGE PAMPAS was shot in Superpanorama 70 (70 mm) as was OLD SHATTERHAND (Apache’s Last Battle) Fregonese’s sole Winnetou film and the very best of the lot. It’s a shame that Fregonese never directed the three Stewart Granger Winnetou’s as they worked so well together on HARRY BLACK-now there’s a film that I would love a 4K restoration of.

    • Really must get round to White Feather here soon. It may not be directed by Delmer Daves but it has his fingerprints all over it in terms of its sensibility, and that’s a very good thing from my point of view.
      Seeing as you mention Harry Black and the Tiger, that’s another film I hold in high regard and mean to feature.

  11. Hmmm,better line breaks I’m getting there. 🙂

    Just as an add-on to the above DVD Beaver has just reviewed Elephant’s Blu Ray of NIGHT PASSAGE the vast improvement over the DVD speaks for itself. It’s great that The Beaver are reviewing these European releases.
    If ever a film needed an upgrade it’s WINCHESTER’73- I simply cannot wait until Explosive’s Blu Ray appears next month. Let’s hope Universal will produce high def masters of BEND OF THE RIVER and THE FAR COUNTRY sooner rather than later.

  12. Be careful what you wish for…….
    Things are moving so fast even I cannot keep up. The Alive ag site has just announced that BEND OF THE RIVER will be coming from Explosive this June.
    I hope this is correct,sadly there have been cock- ups on Alive’s site before. At any rate, I’ve just posted on Explosive’s Facebook page…here’s hoping…if true SENSATIONAL NEWS!!!

  13. Glenn over at DVD Savant has just reviewed Warner’s Blu Ray of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. Needless to say, Glenn is most impressed with the transfer. In his review there is also a most interesting snippet regarding Jody McCrea and MAJOR DUNDEE which I have never read before.
    Sorry,Colin-to more or less “take over” your lovely blog but for us high definition Western fans these are indeed most exciting times. Glenn also informs us that the extras on the DVD are carried over to the Blu Ray edition.

  14. Explosive have replied saying they will be making an announcement regarding BEND OF THE RIVER shortly so it looks as if it’s game on.
    Really Western fans who have not embraced the high definition process just don’t know what they are missing it’s one of the great pleasures in a constantly confused and scary World.
    I simply don’t buy the defense that they don’t want to buy the same film twice-I’ve yet to meet an impoverished movie fan- give your old DVD to a charity shop and enter the wonderful World of High Definition it’s a great place to be and you’ll totally love it. Brilliant that now so many classic Westerns are finding their way to Blu Ray-now virtually every day another sensational announcement.

    • Good news indeed! I agree that it’s marvelous to see all these announcements. Mind you, I do understand the reluctance of some to upgrade. For myself, I have to balance how much a title means to me and how I feel about the quality of its current iteration – generally, if I’m happy enough with it, I’ll stick.

  15. Kind of a cross between and Swashbuckler and a Western. But I love both genres. The sword fight scene is well done – and Woody Strode proves to be a handy guy to have around – as usual.

    Found the whole movie on Daily Motion, but unfortunately the video quality is pretty bad.

  16. As this thread seems to have run it’s course (I think!) I thought I’d go off topic,sort of,and go a few places that I wouldn’t normally go. In the aforementioned digital download that I received of OLD SHATTERHAND I was surprised that it was the full length 122 minute version not the UK released 96 minute version titled APACHE’S LAST BATTLE. As mentioned before Fregonese’s sole entry in the Winnetou series is the best of the lot and his beautifully crafted widescreen compositions add much to the film. Watching the film it’s a shame Fregonese never got the opportunity to make a CinemaScope Hollywood Western. Fregonese like fellow veteran directors Rudolph Mate and Roy Rowland more or less ended their careers in Europe making all sorts of often oddball movies-they were obviously not interested in working in television unlike many veteran Hollywood directors. What did surprise me about the uncut version of OLD SHATTERHAND is a full frontal Daliah Lavi scene where she goes skinny dipping-followed by the usual attempted rape scene. Remember this was 1964 and certainly that scene was not in the UK version I saw-I would have certainly remembered that! As it was a fairly long shot it could,of course been, Daliah’s body double. I may be wrong but I always thought that the Germans were rather prudish about such things with their censorship standards-after all the Winnetou films were more or less family entertainment and the antithesis of the violent Spaghetti Westerns.
    I mention this because there has been comment over at Home Theater Forum about the topless Sheree North scene missing from the recent German Blu Ray of LAWMAN. One chap has also said he hopes that the film will appear uncut on Twilight Time-I don’t think I’d be prepared to pay Twilight Time’s prices just to see Sheree topless ! I might add that the German Black Hill Blu Ray looks fine I might add,. Also before the Network version was available the only way to see TIMESLIP was a German version,and I was amazed in that version some very mildly risque dialog was censored. After a smooch in a car Faith Domergue tells Gene Nelson -“if we were married we could do this all the time” Faith also added that her landlady sleeps with one ear open.None of that survived in the German print. Furthermore the age recommended ratings on German DVD’s and Blu Ray’s seem extreme to say the least. Just to set the record straight regarding Winnetou Lex Barker played “Old Shatterhand” Stewart Granger played “Old Surehand” and for one final entry Rod Cameron was “Old Firehand”

    Finally,there is a teaser announcement for the BEND OF THE RIVER Blu Ray on Explosive’s Facebook page-I understand it’s due for a June release. For less impatient persons than myself I’m pretty sure in time Universal will treat us to the “James Stewart Western Blu Ray Collection” including the three Mann titles and possibly others like NIGHT PASSAGE,SHENANDOAH and THE RARE BREED.

    • John, I know next to nothing about those Winnetou films beyond the fact they exist and who was involved in making them – they constitute one a gap in my knowledge of cinema so it’s good to get a bit of detail about them.

  17. Colin like you, i am also blur of those Winnetou movies. This could be attributed to the fact that I am no fan of P. Brice. Best regards.

    • Personally, I know nothing whatsoever about the guy’s work. I don’t believe I’ve seen him in anything but John’s comments about the Winnetou movies has made me curious.

  18. The Winnetou films were very popular in Europe,several made
    their way over to the UK and also the USA.,
    It’s said that Brice’s involvement in them helped to heal post war
    tensions between France and Germany-Brice had family ties to
    French Nobility.
    What made the Winnetou films appealing was the rapport between
    Lex Barker and Brice which came through on-screen-they were great
    friends in real life.
    When Stewart Granger entered the films the good vibes between the two
    actors seemed to continue.Barker and Granger shared the same agent,I might add.
    I remember spotting Granger in Bond Street in the mid Sixties in more or less
    his “Old Surehand” outfit-cowboy hat,buckskin jacket he looked incredibly
    tanned and handsome.
    Granger,Barker and Brice also appeared in the modern day thriller
    As mentioned before OLD SHATTERHAND is far and away the best
    of the series,and had the biggest budget-shot in 70mm SuperPanorama 70.
    The films are corny,to be sure but the locations in all the films are stunning.
    If anything they have more in common with an old Bob Steele B Western
    Noble Native Americans,decent honest settlers and black suited,black hatted
    nasty bad guys.
    All sort of people pop up in these films-Herbert Lom,Elke Sommer,Guy Madison,
    Terence Hill to name a few.
    Another regular was ex football pro Walter Barnes who also appeared in several
    Spaghetti’s.Later in his career Walter worked quiet a bit with Eastwood.
    Walter’s finest on-screen moment is in BRONCO BILLY where his redneck sheriff
    forces Eastwood to “eat crow” knowing this is a once in a lifetime scene Walter
    really plays it to the hilt it’s a beautiful moment.
    Western fans may also remember Walter who is forced to eat the “salty pie” by
    Randy in Boetticher’s WESTBOUND.
    Well we’ve sure come a long way from Natchez. 🙂

    • It may well be a long way but the info passed along in the course of the journey has been fascinating as far as I’m concerned. I love seeing all the connections between these films and other fare that’s more familiar to me – it just highlights how nothing exists in isolation.

  19. Colin – Thanks for the review. Hybrid films are great because they are unpredictable, you never which way they will go. I have not seen this picture, but will look for it. Director Henry Levin was a versatile director, doing this film, a couple of the Matt Helm movies, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Where the Boys Are, and a lot more. Not a superstar, but he could handle it all. BTW – you have some extraordinarily knowledgeable visitors commenting on this site. (But not me. I thought I knew a lot until I got here.)

    • Yeah, check it out when you can, Elgin, it’s the type of movie it’s very easy to like and pretty hard to dislike. From what I’ve seen of Levin’s work, I think you’re spot on – capable and versatile with some extremely good films in the mix.
      And you’re right about the level and quality of contributions here. That’s something which I find most gratifying, that very knowledgeable people like to visit and share that knowledge around – one of the real pleasures of keeping this place up and running.

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