"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

5 Card Stud (Paramount, 1968)

 

A whodunit set in the American West









Last night on TV here in the wilds of Europe was a movie I saw at the time it came out but not since. I remembered an amazing amount of it, I thought, so it must have made an impression on me at the time (I would have been 19 or 20). Now, though, I fear I don't think it's that wonderful...

Well, one has seen worse. Actually, 5 Card Stud isn’t a gambling or card game movie at all, not like, say, A Big Hand For the Little Lady (Warner Bros, 1966), a very nice little poker film. Hardly any card-playing goes on. It’s not even a Western really, except tangentially. It’s a (rather predictable) whodunit set in the American West.

We are in Rincon (California, presumably), 1880. While a professional dealer is briefly outside, ahem, otherwise engaged, five gamblers he had been playing cards with lynch the sixth, a tinhorn from out of town whom they accuse of cheating. The hero is mortified. But not as much as the gamblers are because one by one they are found murdered. Now, a preacher has arrived in town. I’m afraid you don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to put two and two together, and it’s a fatal weakness of the movie: we know whodunit. Yup, the preacher turns out to be the dead man’s brother (this is kind of a spoiler, I guess, but it will be so obvious to you anyway) and is out for revenge. He happens to be a crack shot too. He says he is backed by “God and Mr. Colt.”

Hal B Wallis had produced a noir, Dark City, in 1950 and decided to remake it as a Western. He lined up Henry Hathaway to direct and got in Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum to star. The trouble was, Hathaway, between Nevada Smith and True Grit, didn’t give a damn. But he was enthusiastic compared with Martin and Mitchum, the most famously insouciant actors Hollywood had. They sleep-walked through the whole shoot. Perhaps Hathaway and Wallis were going for the crazed preacher vibe from The Night of the Hunter with Mitchum in a black frock coat. If so, they didn’t get it. In Hunter he provided true menace and superb acting. In this commercial vehicle he just said the (indifferent) lines.


At least they got to shoot in Durango, Mexico and didn’t have to go to Spain. Daniel L Fapp (eight Westerns, all B) was director of photography. Marguerite Roberts did the screenplay but it wasn’t a patch on her masterwork the following year, True Grit.

Brit Roddy McDowall hams it up unmercifully as the weird son who instigates the hanging. He had a bit part in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean four years later but did nothing else of note Western-wise. It's perhaps unkind to say he didn’t have a clue but really, he didn’t have a clue.

Dino hovers between Inger Stevens (blonde madam of a barber shop – don’t ask) and Katherine Justice (Roddy’s sis), both of whom have set their caps for him. Katherine's and Roddy’s father is about the best actor. It’s Denver Pyle. Now I love Denver, who doesn’t, and he was a stalwart of countless (well, 142) Westerns, but I don’t think anyone would call him Oscarable, in all honesty, do you?

The music is by Maurice Jarre and is irritating. Dino starts us off with a (naturally) quite beautifully sung title song (the man was a musical genius) but unfortunately Jarre worked the ditty to death in orchestral variations throughout the movie till you almost wanted to turn the sound down.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve seen worse. Much worse. But I don’t think any of the principals would claim this as a great Western.

Here's a truly amazing fact for you: Mitchum turned down the role of Pike in The Wild Bunch to do this movie instead. Well, he said, they were both Westerns, weren't they? That is so Mitchum.

It gets up to 2 revolvers because Mitchum was great even in a trance and Dean Martin was just so damn cool.

 

 

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