Friday, 13 June 2008

5 Card Stud

5 Card Stud

Released: 1968
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Written by Marguerite Roberts (Screenplay), Ray Gaulden (Novel)
Music by Maurice Jarre
Starring Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowall

The movie opens on a late night game of 5 Card Stud, after closing hours, at a saloon in the town of Rincon. Van Morgan (Martin) goes outside whilst Nick Evers (McDowall) discovers the man who just took a large pot has been cheating by palming off cards. The card cheat fires off a shot but misses and the angry men soon turn into a lynching party. Van Morgan comes in and asks George the bartender what happened, expressing concern as his view is that you run card cheats out of town, not lynch them. To be fair the guy did try and shoot Nick, I’d want to hang the bastard.

Van Morgan catches up with the mob and tries to stop them but is cold-cocked by Nick Evers with the butt of his pistol. They lynch the card cheat and ride back into town with the unconscious Morgan.

The next morning Mama Malone finds Van Morgan on the floor outside the tavern. She calls out George who carries Van Morgan back to his room. I’ll point out that Mama Malone looks like the sort of sweet little old lady who’d grind your balls to dust and make you snort it. George and Van Morgan watch the corpse of the card cheat being brought back into town. Mama Malone questions the two men about it but gets met with silence. Van Morgan starts packing.

George questions Van Morgan about a poker hand he has framed, on what his hole card was and whether Morgan really had made a Royal Flush. Morgan replies it doesn’t matter because the guy folded and Morgan won the hand. Despite the name of the movie, and the plot point about the card cheat, this is about as poker centric as the movie gets. We never find out about the hand later on and I think that’s great. Because all the big poker action is in the past and hardly spoken of, if you want to put this in a list of poker movies it should go near the top because it doesn’t fuck up or go down to a showdown where everyone turns over an improbable succession of hands. This is pretty much all the poker there is in the movie but it makes a succinct point about poker and gets on with the Western. Great.

Van Morgan rides up to Evers Ranch to see his goodbyes to Nora Evers, we establish that Van Morgan is always leaving town and coming back. Nick comes out and Van Morgan punches him down, Nora notes that the two men ‘have been fightin’ for years...’. Nora is clearly smitten with Van Morgan, aren’t we all...Nick displays some hints of sociopathic behavior in his mindset, either that or he’s just a dick. Van Morgan heads off in a stagecoach to Denver.

Whilst Van Morgan whiles away his time in Denver there is a gold-rush in Rincon, a new bar opens up in competition with Mama Malone who refuses to employ ‘girls’. (Man I’d love to see Al Swearengen open up in competition with Mama) The new preacher, Reverend Rudd (Mitchum), makes an impression when he walks into Mama Malone’s and fires two shots into the floor to get everyone’s attention so he can invite them to the next church service. Mama, unfazed, simply kicks the dust off from around the holes...what a sweet little old lady.

The church is packed for the first service, Rudd gives a stirring service and is unafraid to include reference to his gun, Hellfire and the recent hanging of the card cheat. I think he eclipsed Jules from Pulp Fiction in the bad-ass preaching olympics. It is noted that no one has been charged for the hanging of the card cheat. Nick Evers hangs around after the service and engages the Reverend in a discussion before offering his help.

Nora heads into town and when she goes to Carson’s Store she finds the owner, Fred Carson, dead with his head in a barrel of flour. Panic ensues. Next the Evers ranch hand Stoney Burrow is found garroted along a barbed-wire fence next to an overturned horse carriage. It’s a good shot because you only see the body when they move the carriage and it isn’t too closely shot to show the bad gore effects. Someone should remake this as a western/slasher movie. I Know What You Did At The Last Poker min raising...trapping...drawing...suckout donk bastard.

George goes to Denver and tells Van Morgan that someone is after everyone is was involved in the card game. Van Morgan decides to return to town despite George’s reservations. When he gets into town Van Morgan decides on a shave so he heads for, on George’s suggestion, the newly erected Langford’s Tonsorial Parlor. On the way he bumps into Nora but he pushes his advances too far when he asks for a bath and Nora becomes embarrassed. Nora’s father, we find out, has put out wanted notices for the murderer of Carson and Burrow.

Van Morgan is shocked to find that the Tonsorial Parlor has female barbers, the owner Miss Langford shows some signs of attraction to Van who impishly questions what ‘miscellaneous’ is on the shops list of charges. Nice comedy element here especially the double blow of Morgan expecting a male barber, Miss Langford coming out, and then her calling for a barber and it’s another woman.

The remaining men have a late night poker game, they question each others loyalties and grow paranoid, Nick notes that fresh flowers have been put on the card cheats grave. Van heads back round to Miss Langford’s and despite her attempts to rebuff him they talk before sharing a kiss. Later Van leaves and bumps into the Reverend in the street. Surprisingly they hear the church bell ringing and we see the church door flapping open. The sheriff wanders out to investigate and calls for the two men who discover the body of another of the lynching mob, Mace Jones, hung from the bell rope. Extreme Bell Ringing!

Over breakfast Nick badmouths Mace Jones and he gets into an argument with his father. At the funeral Van Morgan and Nick get into a fist fight when Nick accuses and then attacks George; they bust through a low wall and land on the grave of the card cheat. Van Morgan goes to have words with the Reverend and investigates his story....come to think of it all Dean Martin needs is a gammy eye and a dirty trench-coat and he’s got the Columbo act down pat.

Van Morgan tries to impress Miss Langford with some pistol shooting until they come under fire from a man on horseback, Van notes that ‘if he was after us, we’d be dead.’ so it seems the shots are just to frighten them. The man is revealed to be Rudd who shows some finer pistol work. Rudd shoots at a windmill and hits it six out of six shots, Van only hits it five times, Rudd however jests that he was aiming at the spaces in-between. Every religious studies teacher should be like Reverend Rudd. ‘Sir how can God permit evil to exist?’ ‘Well Jimmy, I’m not at liberty to speak for God but I know a man who can... children, this is my good friend Mr. Colt and he has 6 very precise answers on the nature of evil...’

Nick and the remaining other card player, Joe, discuss what’s happening. Nick talks about the death of his mother and makes it clear he has a lot of issues with his father and life in general before walking off. Joe is throttled by a black draped form, dropping a lantern and setting fire to his stables in the process. Van Morgan is passing and darts in and finds Joe’s dead body in a water trough as someone watches on. The figure tries to make his escape and shots are fired by both the figure and Van Morgan. Van Morgan sits down at the card table with Nick Evers. Evers accuses the first killed, Fred Carson, of being the one who told the killer their names.

The next morning the Dickish Oversensitive Miners Union appear outside the sheriff’s office complaining about the murders, seems coal don’t get mined when there’s a chance to whine. Inside, Cig Evers (father of Nora and Nick) increases the bounty on the killers head to $4000 as the sheriff protests that because it’s just him and his deputy they can’t cover enough ground to catch the killer. Nick Evers, Morgan and Rudd debate public gun ownership policy.

The D.O.M.U. roll into town again with guns out causing the deputy sheriff to man up and confront them, seizing a rifle and smashing it. However his sense of tact isn’t so successful as a miner shoots him and it degenerates into a gunfight between the miners and the sheriff. Van Morgan ineffectually gets involved, darting and diving like he’s in Ye Olde Gear Solid to retrieve the injured sheriff. Reverend Rudd just marches up the street shooting his pistol off because he’s God’s chosen shit-kicker.

After some debate about who should be sworn in as sheriff the scene switches towards the cemetery where Reverend Rudd lays flowers on the grave of the card cheat. Nick emerges from hiding and points that that the two men, Rudd and the card cheat, are brothers and we discover he’s been telling Rudd an erroneous account of the hanging. He says that George was part of the hanging and that Van Morgan led it.

George goes back to his room above a packed Mama Malone’s where Rudd tries to strangle him, George out-muscles him but Rudd shoots him in the gut which goes unheard because of the noise downstairs. Rudd leaves him to die which he does in melodramatic fashion by forming his hands in prayer as a scooby-doo clue towards his killer. The next morning Mama Malone finds George’s body and goes for help. Van Morgan starts to put two and two together.

Meanwhile Reverend Rudd rides to the cemetery to meet Nick in order to get the final name (Morgan’s) that nick has been holding out from him. Nick tries to turn on him and admits to Rudd that it was him who led the hanging. He lets Rudd say a final prayer and making him drop his gun. Rudd goes to his brother’s grave and opens a bible which he’s hollowed out and put a gun in! He shoots Nick dead. ‘Something for you, from the book.’ Ha! He kicks Nick’s corpse into an empty grave.

Van has to break the news of Nick’s death to his family and he goes, alone, to sit at the card table. Rudd arrives and tries to coerce Van to come to the cemetery with him but Van rebuffs him. Van deals a hand for his absent card players and sets out to confront Rudd. Nick rides out to the windmill and manages to shoot it six times in a row this time before reloading his six-shooter. Rudd comes across him and pulls out his bible (OF DEATH) but he’s holding it upside down. Nick calls him out for the murders. Reverend Rudd asks to finish reading a psalm but Van Morgan notices that the good book is the wrong way up:

‘If that’s a bible you read it but if it’s drop it.’ Great line.

They both go for their guns and fire! Van Morgan gets hit but he manages to kill Rudd. He lies to Cig evers and pretends Nick may have been some sort of hero. Nora patches up Van Morgan’s wound but she realizes that Van may be going for good this time but he leaves her. Van Morgan and Miss Langford agree to meet in Denver in a weeks time although Langford is coy about whether she will come or not. Van rides off. The end.

The Good: Robert Mitchum as the Reverend Jonathan Rudd. I’ve never seen ‘Night of the Hunter’ so forgive me for not making comparisons between Mitchum’s portrayals of deadly preachers but the man bowled me over in this. Mitchum has a great mix of charisma and menace and despite Dean Martin playing the poker pro, Van Morgan, it is Mitchum who has the best poker face in this movie.

The script. ‘They say that competition is the life of trade but it’ll be the death of me!’, ‘Your a man, which is no recommendation, and your a gambler, which is less...’ Although the story is straight off and you can see the killer coming a mile off and any attempt at red herrings with George are futile the script is packed with real zingers it’s almost as if Oscar Wilde wrote a western.

The co-stars and bit parts are well fleshed out and Ruth Springford (as Mama Malone) and Yaphet Kotto (as Little George) are great, making us care more for Van Morgan because they, as his main supporting characters, are so well rounded.

The Bad: Roddy McDowall as Nick Evers. Despite the story line pushing him as a more human villain with some serious psychological issues against Mitchum’s walking vengence I found McDowall hammed the part up a bit too much to begin with and his accent sticks out a mile. A lot of the reviews on imdb seemed to like McDowall’s performance but to me he sticks out like a sore English thumb. It’s a hard role to play and, to me, some of McDowall’s physical acting makes him look like he’s performing the role of some sort of Shakespearian villain on stage, not a weasly ranch owners son in a Western.

The Extras: Nothing special, subtitles and a scene selection. The DVD Menu is well designed, I guess.

The Verdict:

Bearing in mind that this film was made in the mid sixties when Spaghetti Westerns were really taking off it serves as a nice bridge between the old school heroic American westerns and the anti-heroics of the Spaghetti Westerns. The moral lines have started to blur here whilst still keeping the backbone of a straight up western.

Van Morgan isn’t a straight up good guy, he’s a card hustler who’s always leaving town. Reverend Rudd, despite his lack of qualms about killing, is almost justified in his revenge plot. Even Nick Evers for his slimy backstabbing is at least given dialogue that fleshes out his impaired moral view.

This is a solid film, the story and acting may not amaze and astound but there isn’t really anything wrong either. There’s some excellent one-liners and speeches throughout the movie especially Reverend Rudd’s. This won’t change your life or give you a better insight into the human mind but it will entertain you and demonstrate that Dean Martin could step out of Vegas once in a while and still sing the theme tune.

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