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.