Five Card Stud

On a number of occasions this blog has cast a critical eye over that curious phenomenon that is the 60s western, and how it behaved as the decade wore on. Challenged from within and without, internationally by the Spaghettis and other Euro varieties, and nationally by a society in flux as well as the continued pressure from the small screen, the genre was not only threshing around in search of direction it was also seeking to redefine its very identity. While figures like Peckinpah and Hellman were exploring more radical avenues of development, others like A C Lyles’ production unit were trying (unsuccessfully, to my mind) to tap into the nostalgia market. Antone familiar with the western will attest to its malleable quality, its almost unique ability to adapt itself to changing tastes and situations and both absorb and reflect new ideas or themes. This can only come about through experimentation and although I’ve mentioned two diverging paths being followed at the time that left a center ground where other options could be explored. And it’s in that area we find a movie like Five Card Stud (1968), something of a hybrid beast where the trappings and attitudes of the western are blended with the plotting of the classic mystery. Does it work? Well, let’s see…

The title alludes to poker and so the film opens with a game of cards, and one of those tropes so common to the western – an allegation of cheating and the hot-headed response that typically prompts. While professional gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) is away from the table trouble erupts and a stranger is accused of being a card sharp. Spurred by the vicious and vindictive Nick Evers (Roddy McDowall), the other players determine to lynch the cheat. Morgan is appalled by this overreaction and sets off in pursuit, hoping to avert a tragedy. However, his protestations are ignored and he’s casually clubbed down before the vigilantes mete out their punishment. Morgan decides this shocking event signals as good a time as any to move on and see how the tables are playing elsewhere. When word reaches him of the sudden and violently gruesome deaths of two of the men involved in the hanging he finds himself drawn back. In his absence, a gold strike has attracted miners and also a new preacher, Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum, but main point of interest remains the apparent determination of someone to ensure that a form of rough justice is served, and to that end those present at that fateful card game and its aftermath are being relentlessly picked off.

Revenge, retribution or a reckoning are often found at or near the heart of the western. Of course we’re usually aware of who is the instrument, the man (or woman) with his finger on the trigger. If Five Card Stud can’t quite be said to subvert this, it does at least play with it a little by bringing Christie to the frontier and inviting the audience to see if they could figure out who among the suspects and potential victims was the guilty party before there were, in fact, none. So, as I asked above – does it work? I guess the fair answer to that is to say it’s a partial success. The mystery of who is doing the killing isn’t that hard to work out in itself and while it contains something of a twist that is arguably revealed a bit too soon. As a straight western, as a whodunit, as a piece of cinema from Henry Hathaway, Five Card Stud remains essentially unremarkable. Yet I do feel it’s one of those cases where the eventual sum is actually greater than its components – the finished film is quite entertaining, almost in spite of itself. It is by no means a great western, it is not a great mystery, and it is not a great Henry Hathaway film. For all that, it adds up to a rather enjoyable mystery western directed by Hathaway.

Last time I posted here I commented on some slightly unconventional casting in westerns. And by complete coincidence I find myself continuing in a similar vein here. Roddy McDowall was an actor I always liked, he came across as a very likeable guy throughout his long career in film and television, and could generally be relied on to deliver a good performance. But he never struck me as a natural for westerns; even though he did make a handful of them he had that refined, urbane air that felt at odds with the usual frontier drama. The fact is he does cut an incongruous figure when he first appears yet, though he never completely loses this, he does grow into his role as the movie proceeds.

On the other hand, the two leads were comfortable genre fits. Mitchum, in a part that feels almost like a parody of his memorable work in The Night of the Hunter, eases his way through a setting he knew like the back of his hand. Dean Martin came to serious westerns (yes, I know he’d already spoofed the genre a few years before with Jerry Lewis) with Rio Bravo and clearly took to it. He’s arguably too relaxed in Five Card Stud but that’s no bad thing with a “big” persona like Mitchum present. In support there is strong work from Yaphet Kotto as well as smaller parts for  the likes of Denver Pyle,  Whit Bissell, Ted de Corsia and John Anderson. The female roles, it has to be said, are pretty weak and less than memorable, especially the part (one of her last as it happens) handed to the tragic Inger Stevens.

Five Card Stud was put out on DVD many years ago by Paramount and the transfer looks a bit aged now. The film is presented 16:9 and looks reasonably clean but it also appears quite faded and insipid in places. While it could stand an upgrade, I’m not sure how much of a market there is for it and therefore whether the expense would be justified. This is another of those 60s westerns which doesn’t fully satisfy – still, it avoids the pessimism that was a significant flaw in some of its contemporaries and at least has the confidence to try something different. There’s enough in the casting and plotting to hold the attention of both western and mystery fans but it’s unlikely to win any converts. As such, I think it just about earns itself a qualified recommendation.

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29 thoughts on “Five Card Stud

  1. Wholeheartedly agree with your review. Worth watching but not that satisfying is my opinion. Somehow I found Dean Martin did not match up to Bob Mitchum. Bob projected a stronger image. Agreed not the best from Henry Hathaway but still entertaining, no doubt. Best regards.

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    • Even Mitchum wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders, although he does get a few showy scenes and he never had any trouble commanding your attention once the camera brought him into shot. But yes, Martin is ultra laid back, even more than usual and does get overshadowed by his costar.

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    • Actually, there is a bit of lethargy on show and a bit of judicious cutting might have helped. A film like this really ought to stay focused at all times and never let the pace slide. I did think about drawing attention to a, in terms of the plot, fairly pointless gunfight involving hot-tempered miners. It seems to have been included for no better reason than to up the action quotient but it doesn’t do the film as a whole any favors.

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      • What’s interesting I suppose is the sense that it was presumably still just about commercially viable to take something that would have passed muster, just about, on TV, but by adding the value of big stars to elevate it to the big screen. There is certainly a big difference between this and even, say, the previous Martin and Hathaway flick, SONS OF KATIE ELDER

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        • This is true and would become much less common very soon. I’ve always felt Hang ‘Em High had a definite TV movie vibe to it, probably amplified by Ted Post’s presence. I think by the 70s there was generally a clearer distinction between, TV and cinema but it was still a little blurred at this stage.

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            • I sometimes feel it’s a pity we moved, in the mid-70s, to the situation which still prevails where only big scripts and material could get commissioned for the cinema. I know TV and DTV took up some of the slack but I’m not sure it’s genuinely good for the movies to have the kind of sharp delineation we now observe.

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  2. Yes, I also fully agree with your review, Colin. I haven’t seen this film in a long time, mainly because perhaps once was enough. It is a mainstream western, which is on the plus side (for me) but, like many westerns from this period seems rather ‘flat’.
    How a genre which grew until reaching a fantastic peak standard in the 1950s so quickly went awry has always been a disappointment to me, though perhaps no mystery. The studio system was largely going or gone, the invasion from Europe gave it a (brief) boost but at the same time sabotaged it and then of course the actors who were so natural and great in westerns were now retired or too old in the main. So it was inevitable in a way. I continued grasping at every western at the cinema in the 60s and even 70s but invariably (not always) left disappointed.
    Hathaway still had “TRUE GRIT” in his future fortunately.

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    • Jerry, I do like the fact the film was trying for something different. Many films of this era appeared to think that the success of the Spaghetti western meant that nihilism, amoral characters and/or an overbearing sense of grimness represented the way to go, but Five Card Stud largely ignored that and headed in another direction. Even though it doesn’t quite come off, I admire the thinking behind it.

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    • That’s great that you rate Dino’s performance so highly here. I reckon he did better work in westerns but it’s not a bad performance either in my view, just a bit more detached than was necessary.

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      • You’re right. I’m not saying this is his best performance, but it’s one that I enjoy quite a bit. I think he was at his best in Rio Bravo. I also like him very much in The Sons of Katie Elder. He just seemed to fit this genre perfectly. He is so well remembered for his singing, but he was also a fantastic actor too.

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        • Yeah, I’d agree with just about all of that. I think Dino played up his own persona a great deal and lots of people ended up thinking there wasn’t much beyond that, and nothing could be further from the truth.
          It’s not a western but I feel he did very good work in Some Came Running, which is just such a fine piece of filmmaking anyway.

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          • Very true. There was so much more to him, as both an actor and in his personal life. Yeah he is good in Some Came Running, the scene where he takes his hat off (at last)gets me every time. I’m eager to see him in Toys in the Attic, I’ve heard that’s one of his best performances. Have you seen it?

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    • Well, I think there’s much to like in the film, Rick, and it’s the kind of thing which you come away from feeling as though you’ve had a reasonably fun hour and a half. It’s no world beater and there are aspects that could be tighter but it’s not a movie we could regard as poor. Sometimes I think we can get too hung up on very high or low quality productions and forget that there’s a large area in between with material that’s pleasant enough, but nothing more.

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  3. Colin
    Nice review as always. I saw this one only the one time back in the early 70’s at a drive in triple bill. Don’t recall that much about it, which usually means it was a dud. Though I must admit that if it was the 3rd feature that evening, we would have been quite far into the beer we always brought along. I sure miss the massive drive in screens.

    Gord

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    • Gord, I can how this mightn’t stick in the mind, particularly if it was seen with a couple of other movies in one sitting. I’ve seen it a few times myself now and I’d say it’s fine as a way to pass the time pleasantly.

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  4. At lot of 60’s Westerns are not fondly remembered. There was some real commercial trash.
    Five Card Stud movie is a strange one. At times good – at times falls into Camp. Yeah, has the ingredients (Cast) to be a gem, but never gets there. I wouldn’t rush to watch it twice.

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    • Yeah, this is true. The film isn’t essential but good enough if you happen to catch it – just not something anyone needs to search for. The cast does bump up expectations and I’d argue the mystery hybrid premise has a similar effect.

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  5. In many cases it’s what we see as kids that we remain fond of and this is a title that played repeatedly and I think I watched it every time it was on. So I’m a fan even though I could sit and pick it apart today if I chose to. It’s a weak Hathaway effort but who cares. I’m even humming the musical melody as I type this. As you know by now I’m a fan of Mitch, Dino and Roddy and this is probably one of the many reasons. My dad always liked this one and I can remember him liking the Kotto character and the act of praying as a tip off for Dino. Been meaning to feature this one as well. Think I’ll go have a shave over at Miss Steven’s place and if I’m lucky and have that one face in about a ……… 🙂

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    • I think you’ve covered most of the good reasons for watching this movie in that comment, Mike. The casting of Mitchum, Dino and Roddy grabs your interest right away, Inger Stevens is a very attractive presence even if her role ultimately doesn’t amount to much, and then there is that highly hummable theme.
      I share your father’s fondness for Kotto’s clue – it’s a neat little touch.

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  6. Thanks for reviewing this one, Colin (and for “liking” my story on my blog).

    It’s been recommended to me for a long while, and I’ve never got around to seeing it; your review is one more point in its favor!

    By the way, I’m sure you know this, but are the pictures having trouble? I only see the “Photobucket 3rd Party Hosting” symbol.

    Karl

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    • No problem, Karl. I enjoyed the story quite a bit, even if I didn’t solve it.
      This is worth a look for mystery fans, Joe Dakota is another western mystery that springs to mind as potentially interesting too.
      And yes, the pictures are a problem just now. I had been using photobucket as a hosting service for years but now they have decided to prohibit linking images unless I subscribe to a (ridiculously expensive) package. I’ll get the images up again somehow but I’m a bit pressed for time just now and I’m stuck with those aesthetically unpleasant messages for the time being.

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