The Bottom Line
Dean Martin at his cowboy hippest squares off against a sinister preacher (Robert Mitchum) and a squirrely card shark (Roddy McDowall) in this sleeper 1968 western full of charm and suspense.
The Rest Of The Story
It was Henry Hathaway who saw the swagger in Dino that made him perfect for the western hero - slackjawed, effortlessly cool, a cat on the prowl. After his successful direction of Martin in the John Wayne flick The Sons of Katie Elder, Hathaway again teamed up with Dino to make 5 Card Stud about mysterious deaths linked to an ongoing poker game.
The movie starts off rather jerkily - Van Morgan (Martin), Nick Evers (McDowall in a delightfully smarmy role), and three other listless men are playing poker (although it's quite apparently five card draw, not stud they're playing). One of the players - a newbie to the table named Frank - is causing tempers to flare with his constant winning. Accusations of cheating come out in muttered breaths, but Martin plays the raissoneur, calming the other players by taking a hand with a full house. Still, when Martin leaves to go to the bathroom, the other players lose another round to Frank, and upset over their cash, they drag Frank out to a nearby barn and lynch him. (Note to self: no more canasta with Roddy.) Martin tries to intervene, but the deed is done.
A short time later, life is going on as usual in the sleepy town. Dino is dating Nick's sister Nora (the gorgeous but weepy Katherine Justice) and the card game continues. The plot of the movie is admittedly pretty thin, and the thirty minutes following the lynching are only made bearable by the huge presence of Martin. He swaggers about town, making jokes with the bartender (Yaphet Kotto) and saloon owner (Ruth Springford), as well as the local barber (Inger Stevens), who just happens to be the local madame as well. Morgan's double entendre-filled conversation with Stevens is a great wink towards the swingin' 60s audience.
Finally, some action! The Man in Black arrives in the form of preacher Reverend Jonathan Rudd (Mitchum). He walks into the town's abandoned church and begins dutifully sweeping out the aisles. His fiery sermons get the people riled up, but meanwhile, strange doings are a-transpirin' ... murder! One of the poker regulars is found strangled to death by barbed wire (another homage to the mod moviegoers, with slasher flicks rising in popularity) and soon another is found buried to death in a flour barrel. Then a third shows up with an axe in his back, making three. The whodunit echoes throughout the whole town, and many people suspect Dino of the dirty deeds. He in turn suspects Nick, who does very little to dissuade anybody that he is anything but a scofflaw and ne'er-do-well.
Finally, Kotto's character is killed off onscreen - by none other than Mitchum, who reveals his real reasons for coming to town: Frank was his son, and he is enacting his revenge on all of those who took part in the murder. Although Kotto didn't take part in the crime, he isn't able to convince Mitchum not to kill him, but he does leave a vital clue before dying: he puts his palms together on his chest. When Morgan comes across the scene, he figures out that the bartender was trying to indicate the preacher.
At about the same time, Nick and the preacher are heading out to the gravesite of the recently killed poker players for an impromptu funeral. While there, Reverend Judd begins reading from the Bible, but Nick pulls his gun on Mitchum. "I know it was you who killed these men," he snarls, and Mitchum doesn't deny it. Then, in a classic and oft-repeated since maneuver, he pulls a gun out of a cutout in the Bible and kills Nick. (Shawshank Redemption, eat your heart out.) Moments later, Van arrives on the scene, and when the reverend attempts to repeat his hidden gun trick, Van knocks it from his hand. The two struggle, but if you can't discern the ending of the battle yet, well ... you can go watch the movie for yourself.
The movie is pretty light on content, and though the dialogue is snappy, the entire thing just kind of dawdles along for an hour and a half. It would've made a much better "Alfred Hitchcock Hour" episode, except Dean Martin's easygoing charisma seems much more apt to the part of Morgan than, say, an earnestly concerned William Shatner.
Perhaps more appropriately this review should begin with: Martin! Martin is in the house! Dean simply steals the show. If you've never seen his Matt Helm movies (especially The Silencers) then you have missed out on one of the true comedic talents of his day. He oozes charm, that's a given, but he's got a great self-deprecating sense of humor, and his constantly-drunk demeanor never gets annoying, no matter how many times I see it. McDowall is also a scene-eater, and his coy British accent slips in on occasion, making his character even more mawkish than you thought possible. Inger Stevens is great as the bawdy redhead who can last a round or two with the boys, and I think even Mitchum cracks a smile or two in the picture. That's strange. For a murder mystery action western, it feels like a dark comedy.
Rating: 8 out of 10. I highly recommend renting this or finding it on the television, you won't regret it. Oh yeah! Dean Martin's title song is a hoot, too.
Ray Gaulden (novel)
Dean Martin as Van Morgan
Robert Mitchum as Reverend Jonathan Rudd
Roddy McDowall as Nick Evers
Inger Stevens as Lily Langford
Katherine Justice as Nora Evers
John Anderson as U.S.Marshal Al Dana
Ruth Springford as Mama Malone
Yaphet Kotto as Little George
Denver Pyle as Sig Ever
- My double viewing.