Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Five Card Stud

This Paramount release falls into that rare subgenre of serial killer/murder mystery westerns. It’s a little stodgy perhaps, especially considering the new wave of violent, political westerns coming out of Europe at the time, but 1968's FIVE CARD STUD is great entertainment, propelled by its terrific cast, odd Maurice Jarre score, and unusual premise.

Rincon, Colorado. 1880. A poker game involving laidback professional gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) comes to a violent end when one of the players is accused of cheating. Despite the protestations of Morgan (who is hit in the head and knocked out trying to stop it) and young, black bartender George (Yaphet Kotto), the other five players lynch their cheating companion, who is buried in an unmarked grave.

Several weeks later, Rincon is struck by a series of gruesome murders in which the victims are strangled or smothered or hanged. All the victims were members of the lynching party, which the rest of Rincon knows nothing about. Morgan, who’s carrying on dual romances with virginal Nora (Katherine Justice) and prostitute Lily (Inger Stevens) and a feud with Nora’s sociopathic brother Nick (Roddy McDowall), another member of the lynch mob, decides to find the murderer before he becomes the next victim. Adding to the mystery is Rincon’s new preacher, the odd but kindly Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum).

Although director Henry Hathaway (TRUE GRIT) throws in a couple of gunfights and one fairly violent fistfight between Martin and McDowall to satisfy the oater fans, FIVE CARD STUD is more or less an Agatha Christie mystery with spurs. Its major weakness is that it’s fairly obvious early on who the killer is—there just aren’t many suspects to choose from—although watching Martin slowly put the clues together is kind of fun. He and Mitchum, both among the most relaxed movie stars of their generation, work well together, fostering an uneasy, polite relationship between the man-of-God-with-a-past and the nomadic cardsharp.

They’re supported by a nifty cast of western veterans, including John Anderson, Roy Jenson, Bill Fletcher, Denver Pyle, Whit Bissell, and Don Collier, but the most interesting performances come from unexpected sources. Thirty-year-old Kotto is wonderfully warm as bartender George, a loyal friend to Morgan who is treated as an equal, still an unusual sight in a late-1960s western. Also great is McDowall, who may not have been appearing in his first western, but he certainly didn’t make many. As the venal and vicious Nick (and obvious red herring), McDowall makes the most of his rivalry with Martin, emerging as the film’s most hateful character.

Dino, who had already started making Matt Helm movies and starring in THE DEAN MARTIN SHOW, seems to have taken his role seriously for a change. He made this and BANDOLERO!, another western shot in Mexico, the same year. Martin also performed the catchy theme, written by Jarre and Ned Washington.


RJR said...

I enjoyed this western A LOT. I think Dean Martin did his best work in Westerns, and Mitchum is . . . well, Mitchum. What's not to like?

Grant said...

I know you sometimes review TV movies, and to me, one of the most underrated TV movies ever made is one simply called NIGHT CHASE (though it isn't really an action story), a sort of "Fugitive" variation, with David Janssen himself and Yaphet Kotto. In spite everything else Kotto has done, it's the first thing I connect with him apart from ALIEN, because he and Janssen were really great together.

Unknown said...

Good post. I enjoyed this film, have the dvd. Dean was good here, better in Rough Night in Jericho, a favorite.