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Five Card Stud, 1968  

Review: written 2006

Entertaining Murder Mystery

Yes, this is first and foremost a murder mystery rather than a Western, but the Western ingredients are oh so tasty as well. By no means a traditional Western, the plot is offbeat enough (borrowing heavily from Agatha Christie) that you can imagine it as a spaghetti Western albeit with a somewhat different treatment than it gets here.

The story is this: A game of five card stud goes wrong when one of the men is revealed as a cheat - he is lynched, despite Dean Martin trying to stop the proceedings. Later, the members of the card game start dying, one by one in styles reminiscent of the death of the card cheat. Has one of the players gotten scared and is silencing the others? Is it anything to do with the preacher who just arrived in town (played by Robert Mitchum)? Did the story get out and someone else is taking revenge? It's not too difficult to figure it out at least in part - heck, just the casting gives it away. But the script is sharp enough to make the journey fun, and even the bit players are worth watching.xxxxxxThe story is of a young man Ivan, based loosely on a real-life newspaper story of the time, who comes from the country looking for work in the city. He finds only rejection and dishonesty, and is lured to a life of crime through having no other options. The oppression of poverty and corruption of the city oppresses him (and us the viewer) until he snaps, and embarks on a violent revenge to get what he feels he deserves. In the end, all he gets is a defining moment of violence in the final moments of the film. Westerns were popular in Jamaica at the time, and this is reflected in the moments of the Django movie we see Ivan watch with his friends, one of the few moments of pleasure we see him have. That movie moment is echoed effectively in the final scenes in helping us realise Ivan’s detachment from reality at that point.

Henry Hathaway clearly wants to do something a little different with this Western (this one is sandwiched between the classics 'Sons of Katie Elder' and 'True Grit') and he succeeds, though not as successfully as before and after. The movie is unfailingly entertaining - I remember it from my youth, and it still sticks in my mind, and brings a smile when I think of it. The camerawork and locations are simultaneously obviously low budget and yet often brilliant. The hand-held camerawork combines with some often excellent cinematographic eye for creating a canvas, portraying a real and vivid Jamaica that you don't see in the travel brochures. The locations were largely what they could use for little cost, and yet every one effective in adding to the tale and the background colour, often making this feel like a documentary of life in Jamaica.

Dean Martin croons the title song, part of an underrated score by Maurice Jarre. I say underrated because though not having the depth of his other works, this score is catchy enough to stick in your head - rather like the movie - no depth, but just plain entertaining. Dean Martin shows he can lead a movie effectively, and while he does not stretch his acting chops by any means, he could not be more convincing as the womanising gambler caught up in something murky and trying to figure it out. Robert Mitchum is kind of on autopilot here by his standards, but brings enough of his character from 'Night of the Hunter' to make his part feel real. Bit parts too are worth mentioning - Roddy McDowell as the underhand nasty ringleader with a chip on his shoulder; Yaphett Koto before playing a Bond villain in Live and Let Die plays the black philosophical bartender - OK, it's a cliché, but it's one that works.

There is a love interest subplot which fails to ignite - Martin starts the movie in a semi romance with the young innocent daughter of the big rancher (the rancher is played by Denver Pyle who went on to co-star in Grizzly Adams), and then tarries with the new woman in town, (Inger Stevens) - neither is completely convincing, as is the idea he would try and manage both at the same time. But then, this is a Dean Martin vehicle...

To summarise, this film has no depth, played by actors on autopilot and a director not firing on all four cylinders - and yet it is a hugely entertaining off beat Western that you are bound to enjoy. Just don't expect a bona fide classic.

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