Easy-going cowboy gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) is at a card game that turns sour when one of the seven players is unmasked as a cheat. Hot-headed Nick Evers (Roddy McDowall) swiftly rouses a lynch mob and knocks Van unconscious when he tries to save the hapless victim. Only a few days later one of the vigilantes is found strangled to death at the local store. More murdered men are discovered around town in the weeks that follow, prompting Van to turn detective even as he realises his own name might be among the killer’s target list. Meanwhile, a seemingly righteous but enigmatic preacher named Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum) arrives in town with a holy mission to dissuade locals from gambling and killing.
5 Card Stud presented a showdown between the two most laidback leading men in Hollywood and the results were less than spectacular, which was perhaps to be expected. The story goes that Robert Mitchum chose this turgid two-hander over the lead role in The Wild Bunch (1969) since he figured one western was much the same as another. Movie fans can only wonder whether old sleepy eyes ever saw Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece and came to realise he made a big mistake. Oddly, he turned down Network (1976) too, so maybe William Holden owes him a thank you note, but I digress. Top-billed co-star Dean Martin performs the title song for this gimmicky fusion of the western with sub-Agatha Christie murder mystery and adopts a variation on his laidback Matt Helm persona, although with Henry Hathaway at the helm this is at least grittier than the lovably louche star’s other wild west outings, e.g. Texas Across the River (1966), 4 For Texas (1963) and Something Big (1971). Still, it’s a long way from Rio Bravo (1959).
Produced by the legendary Hal B. Wallis - whose late career output were almost exclusively westerns - this sloppy horse opera meets Ten Little Indians style murder mystery was based on a novel by Ray Gaulden. It was adapted for the screen by the prolific Marguerite Roberts who wrote everything from Ziegfield Girl (1941) to Rudyard Kipling adaptation Soldiers Three (1951) before she fell afoul of the Hollywood Blacklist for refusing to name suspected communists to the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Post-comeback, Roberts came to specialise in westerns and penned True Grit (1969) and Shoot-Out (1971) for Hathaway and Wallis. Sadly her efforts came to naught here. The script takes ages to establish its plot and even after things finally get going Hathaway weaves the mystery in none too compelling fashion. There are fight sequences and shootouts that go nowhere and add nothing before the film reveals the murderer far too early, though his identity won’t surprise anybody. Still there is a mildly intriguing twist regarding his motivation and the machinations of a key conspirator along with a nice touch when Van eventually identifies the culprit thanks to a clever clue provided by a dead man.
Mitchum essentially plays a watered down variation on his psychotic preacher Harry Powell from the magnificent The Night of the Hunter (1955) but several inconsistencies in his character ring false notes throughout. Meanwhile, Dino essays an oddly feckless hero who cheats on his adoring girlfriend (perky Katherine Justice, who gives the one appealing performance in the film) mere minutes after glamorous brothel madam Belle (Inger Stevens, who sadly committed suicide two years later) breezes into town. The sub-plot with these two women vying for his affections goes unresolved, which sums up the makeshift nature of the film as a whole. Amidst an eclectic supporting cast there is an early significant role for Yaphet Kotto of Alien (1979) and Live and Let Die (1979) fame, Denver Pyle the future Uncle Jessie on The Dukes of Hazzard plays Nick’s disapproving father and Roddy McDowall is strangely cast but surprisingly effective as a scheming rabblerouser. He savours a spiteful speech about his traumatic past. On a technical level the film is no great shakes either with awkward editing, grainy cinematography and some clumsy ADR. Music by Maurice Jarre, although again it is not one of his best. All in all this is one to avoid given everyone involved has done better work elsewhere.