Thursday, October 2, 2008


"Garden of Evil" director Henry Hathaway's western whodunit "5-Card Stud" (**1/2 out of ****) pits 'hellfire gambler' Dean Martin against 'gunfire preacher' Robert Mitchum in a frontier tale about lynching, murder, and revenge. Mind you, deducing the whodunit will pose a minor challenge to astute audiences. You will spot the actor committing the crimes long before the film identifies him in its second-to-last scene. If you study the stable strangling scene, the killer's headgear gives him away. The characters in "True Grit" scenarist Marquerite Roberts' screenplay based on Ray Gaulden's novel are flat since they neither change either their their mentality or their morality. Nevertheless, Roberts boots around an interesting question about "who people were before they became who they are" which segues with the mystery. Otherwise, this Hathaway horse opera is sturdy enough, contains a believable cast and knows how to blend comedy with drama nimbly enough so that it rarely becomes either heavy-handed or repetitious.

Compared to Hathaway's other oaters, "5-Card Stud" doesn't top "True Grit," "The Sons of Katie Elder," "Garden of Evil," "From Hell to Texas," or "Rawhide." However, "5-Card Stud" surpasses "Shoot Out" and "Nevada Smith." Although some critics don't cotton to Maurice Jarre's orchestral score and denigrated it as "Dr. Zhivago" on the range, I contend that it is superb music and differs from anything that Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, or Ennio Morricone would have done. Jarre's score enlivens the action and enhances the atmosphere. The Dean Martin song at the beginning and end of "5-Card Stud" marks this sagebrusher as a traditional western As far back in the 1950s, many major westerns contained a ballad about the story or the hero with lyrics like ". . . play your poke and he'd leave you broke."

Interestingly, "5-Card Stud" makes some racial references that chipped away at the usual barriers. In one scene, Robert Mitchum's gun slinging preacher doesn't think it inappropriate that a black man be buried among whites, something that marked this western as a departure from Jim Crow mentality. John Sturges' "The Magnificent Seven" had broken ground earlier with a gunfight so that an Indian could be buried in a white graveyard.

Professional gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin of "Sergeants 3") takes a break from a Saturday night poker game while Sig Ever's son Nick (Roddy McDowell of "Planet of the Apes"), stableman Joe Hurley (Bill Fletcher of "Hour of the Gun"), Mace Jones (Roy Jenson of "Big Jake"), storekeeper Fred Carson (Boyd 'Red' Morgan of "Violent Saturday"), Ever's ranch hand Stoney Burough (George Robotham of "The Split") continue to play poker with newcomer Frankie Rudd (Jerry Gatlin of "The Train Robbers") until Nick catches Rudd cheating 'red-handed' and organizes a lynch party. They take Rudd out to a stream and string him up from the bridge. Barkeeper George (Yaphet Koto of "Live and Let Die") warns Morgan and Morgan lights out after Nick and company to thwart the necktie party. "You don't hang a cheat," Morgan growls, "you kick him out of town." When Morgan arrives, Frankie is swinging with a noose around his neck, and Nick clubs Morgan on the back of the head with his six-gun.

Mama Malone (Ruth Springford of "Vengeance Is Mine") discovers Morgan strewn on the boardwalk the following morning and summons George to help the battered gambler to his room. Morgan decides to pull out of Rincon and try his luck in Denver. Before he leaves, he rides out to Sig Ever's spread to bid goodbye to Sig's comely daughter Nora (Katherine Justice of "The Way West") and deck Nick as repayment for clobbering him at the hanging.

Naturally, the town marshal (John Anderson of "Young Billy Young") can neither identify the lynch mob nor can he identify the hanged man. Later, participants in the card game begin to die. One is wrapped up in barbed wire, another is hanged in the church, and still another is suffocated in a barrel of flour. Indeed, Hathaway and Roberts make each death look different. Eventually, George visits Morgan in Denver and Morgan decides to ride back to Rincon. Two things have changed since Morgan rode out of Rincon. First, the town has acquired a gun-t0ting pastor who renovates the church and holds services, and second Lilly Langford (Inger Stephens of "Hang'em High") has opened a barbershop that features a $20 item that intrigues Morgan when he visits her establishment for the first time. Lilly and Nora contend for Morgan, while Morgan closes in on the new preacher Jonathan Rudd.

"5-Card Stud" boasts several good scenes. The shoot-out in the streets of Rincon when paranoid miners go berserk because they fear that they may be the next victim of the local serial killer is well staged. If you slow down your DVD or VHS copy, you can see Dean Martin lose his Stetson when he grabs hold of an axle to let a wagon haul him out of harm's way. You can see his headgear fall off completely and in the next scene is hat is back on his head. Nevertheless, it is still a neat gunfight with Morgan and Rudd standing back to back against the opposition. The scene at a windmill where Rudd hits each of the windmill blades because he was aiming at the spaces in between the blades is fun, too. George plays a role in the story and provides his buddy Morgan with a clue to the killer's identity. The animosity between Nick Evers and Van Morgan is feisty throughout the action with Nora trying to do her best to dampen it. Van Morgan and Lilly have some amusing banter. The expository scenes about Nick's childhood almost make his character marginally sympathetic.

Indeed, "5-Card Stud" is no classic, but it good enough for a rainy day.

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