5 Card Stud (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: May 01, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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5 Card Stud (Blu-ray Review)


Henry Hathaway

Release Date(s)

1968 (March 26, 2024)


Paramount Pictures (Vinegar Syndrome)
  • Film/Program Grade: B-
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B+

5 Card Stud (Blu-ray)

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Dean Martin’s convincing job as the town drunk in the Howard Hawks’ Western Rio Bravo likely is what prompted director Henry Hathaway to cast him as the lead in 5 Card Stud, a blend of traditional Western and whodunit.

The setting is Rincon, Colorado in 1880. Professional gambler Van Morgan (Martin, Oceans 11) is taking a break from a high-stakes poker game when one of the players is caught cheating. The others decide to administer frontier justice. Morgan returns shortly and rides out after them to prevent the lynching. A fight ensues, Morgan is knocked unconscious, and the cheater is hanged.

Shortly thereafter, the men of the lynch mob start turning up dead, all strangled, one from barbed wire fencing, another hanged from the church’s bell tower, a third suffocated in a barrel of flour. The killer is unknown. It looks as if someone is avenging the murder but the marshal (John Anderson, Psycho) has no clue who it might be. The gamblers still alive are on edge and suspicious of each other.

Around the same time, Baptist preacher Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum, The Night of the Hunter) comes to town to establish a church. Rudd is no ordinary clergyman. He carries a gun as well as a Bible, fires at the floor of the local saloon to get the customers’ attention, and then invites them to Sunday morning services.

Also new in town is Lily Langford (Inger Stevens, A Guide for the Married Man), proprietor of a combination barbershop and brothel. She catches Morgan’s eye and proves to be a smart, sophisticated love interest for him. But there’s another young woman in Morgan’s life—Nora Evers (Katherine Justice, The Stepmother), daughter of a wealthy rancher. Her brother, Nick (Roddy McDowall, Planet of the Apes), is a sullen, angry wastrel who hates Morgan and nearly everyone else and always seems to provoke fights with him. Nick was one of the lynch gang.

The film unfolds like an Agatha Christie mystery with one key exception. There aren’t enough potential suspects to keep us guessing. The screenplay by Marguerite Roberts tips its hand fairly early with obvious clues and a dearth of red herrings to misdirect suspicions. The plot unfolds predictably to an underwhelming climactic confrontation.

Martin’s laid-back style is ill-suited to his role. He displays virtually no range as Morgan, playing his scenes on the same level throughout and looking bored even when tension should be high. Nora and Lily are basically the good girl and the bad girl on hand to illustrate Morgan’s sexual magnetism. Their avid attentions, however, fail to strike a credible ring against Martin’s one-note performance.

Mitchum’s preacher is an enigmatic presence. Essentially bullying the townspeople to attend his new church, he has an air of menace, yet comes to the aid of Morgan in a deadly gunfight when everyone else fails to assist. Mitchum knows how to underplay and his subdued performance, along with his strong screen presence, enliven an uninspired story.

McDowall could have been the right fit for the role of the sociopathic ne’er-do-well Nick. He has several meaty scenes and his character is integral to the unraveling of the whodunit. But his British accent seeps through to undermine his credibility as a rancher’s son born and bred in the old West, and his histrionic performance steals most of his scenes to the ultimate detriment of the film.

Yaphet Kotto (Alien), in an early screen role, plays saloon bartender and Morgan’s friend Little George. Ruth Springford (The Changeling) plays Mama Malone, the saloon’s owner. Denver Pyle (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) plays Nora and Nick’s father, rancher Sig Evers; and familiar movie and TV face Whit Bissell (Seven Days in May) portrays the town doc.

The acting of the leads is pedestrian, so either Hathaway was “out to lunch” when he should have shaped their performances or the stars were simply uninspired. Line readings are slow and labored and acting, with the exception of Mitchum’s, is not credible. It’s particularly disheartening to see actors who were so effective in other pictures, coasting.

5 Card Stud is a tale of vengeance that lacks distinction. Henry Hathaway, who directed such superior films as Kiss of Death, True Grit and Airport, is not at his best here. The main problems are a routine script and Martin as leading man. John Wayne or Henry Fonda, for instance, would have elevated the so-so script considerably. In addition, Hathaway fails to give the film any visual pizzazz. The exteriors are not exploited fully. When scenes should have scope, they seem claustrophobic, and much of the film was shot on studio back lots, adding to a feeling of smallness. If Dean Martin were not the star, 5 Card Stud would have been a B picture, not a major release.

5 Card Stud was shot by directors of photography Daniel L. Fapp and uncredited James V. King on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Blu-ray release is newly-scanned and restored in 4K from its original camera negative. Clarity and contrast are excellent. A number of panoramic shots show the open landscape of mountains, rivers, valleys, and prairies. The town of Rincon seems like an oasis in a still untamed world. Twilight scenes, in particular, are well rendered, and night scenes retain detail. The color palette ranges from the dusty landscapes of ranch lands to the bright decor in Lily’s barbershop and her fancy dresses. The men are attired in darker, earth-toned hues. Preacher Rudd is dressed in black. Details such as a wallpaper pattern in the barbershop, bark on tree trunks, rotating windmill blades, and a stone cemetery fence are well delineated. There are no perceptible imperfections to hamper a pleasant viewing experience.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Sound effects include galloping horses, bullets hitting the blades of a windmill, gunfire, a clattering stagecoach, bodies being pummeled in fights, a church bell ringing, and cards being dealt and poker winnings being raked in. The title song by Ned Washington and Maurice Jarre, sung by Dean Martin, is an annoying earworm played over the opening and closing credits and at every conceivable opportunity in between.

Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome include the following:

  • Audio Commentary with Brian Hannan
  • Jack of All Trades (21:35)
  • A Woman of True Grit (13:41)

Audio Commentary – Author and film historian Brain Hannan refers to 5 Card Stud as one of the Western “standards of the 1960s” but almost forgotten today. The film is based on the B novel Glory Gulch by Ray Gaulden. Many changes were made by screenwriter Marguerite Roberts for the film adaptation, including the name of the protagonist, who became Van Morgan in the film. In the book, Morgan is in Denver a long time, living the high life. Sig Evers doesn’t trust his son. He needs his daughter to balance the recklessness of his son. Director Henry Hathaway wasn’t considered a stylist like John Ford but a “studio workhorse.” As a contract director at 20th Century Fox, Hathaway worked in many genres and directed a number of films noir, including Kiss of Death, filmed on location in New York City. He also directed Marilyn Monroe in Niagara. Often, Hathaway would “cheat,” shooting scenes on sound stages in what appeared to be locations. He never looked at rushes, which dissuaded actors from asking to see them. He was nominated for an Academy Award only once, for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935). In 5 Card Stud, there’s a range of acting styles, from Robert Mitchum’s laid-back manner to Roddy McDowall’s tendency to overact. The repeated motif of strangulation occurs as the murders are committed. The film slows down when Morgan enters Lily’s barbershop. The film avoids the cliche of the love triangle. The women are independent, intelligent, and have responsibilities usually taken on by men. During the 1960s, star actresses earned greater salaries than their male counterparts. After Bye Bye Birdie, for instance, Ann-Margret had lucrative contracts with several studios for a dozen movies. Other actresses who commanded huge salaries at the time were Julie Andrews, Audrey Hepburn, and Barbra Streisand. Dean Martin was a huge money maker, earning from movies, TV, recordings, and nightclub appearances. In 1967, Martin was earning more money than any actor in Hollywood. He also dabbled in real estate. He was underrated as an actor, often receiving less than stellar reviews from critics. Westerns were a Hollywood staple from the beginning of the industry. In the 1960s, Hollywood was willing to spend lavishly for the rights to best-selling books and hit Broadway shows, figuring their pre-sold titles would lead to big box office. 5 Card Stud was successful at the box office, taking in $3.5 million in the U.S.A. and Canada. It also did well overseas.

Jack of All Trades – Film critic Walter Chew provides an overview of the career of director Henry Hathaway. Hathaway was born in 1898, the son of an entertainment family. He became an assistant director for such directors as Victor Fleming and Ernst Lubitsch and was mentored by director Alan Dwan. His first film as director was Heritage of the Desert, a 1932 Randolph Scott western, and he went on to direct several more Westerns with Scott based on books by Zane Grey. He worked multiple times with actors Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Dean Martin. Hathaway is often described as a journeyman rather than an auteur. He enjoyed filming on location. On the film Niagara, he encouraged Marilyn Monroe to “be herself.”

A Woman of True Grit – Author Lizzie Francke discusses the career and legacy of screenwriter Marguerite Roberts. Roberts came from a hardened background. She grew up in the West. Her grandfather was a pioneer, and her father a town marshal. Her first job was working for a newspaper and her first assignment was covering a murder trial. She became fascinated with “coded masculine” activities. At Fox, she moved from secretary to the story department, her Western background important in steering her to these types of stories. She broke stereotypes about what a woman could or couldn’t write. She moved to MGM, where her writing career flourished and many stars, including Clark Gable, liked what she wrote. This gave her power, and she pushed boundaries in small ways. She was caught up in the HUAC witch hunt, did not name names, and was unemployable for ten years. Apart from her screenplay for True Grit, none of her other films of the period have achieved a similar status.

Booklet – The enclosed 16-page booklet contains the essay 5 Card Stud: A Menacing Western-Mystery “Hell-Bent for Hell” by Jim Healy, 6 color photos, and 2 full-color poster reproductions.

5 Card Stud is a tale of bitter revenge that never achieves the status of a first-class Western. Though it has violence and action, the mystery aspect is transparent and therefore takes a great deal away from the film’s impact. As nominal star, Dean Martin appears more an ensemble player than the lead. Stronger direction and some serious tweaks of the script would have resulted in a sharper, more satisfying film.

- Dennis Seuling