5 Card Stud [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Vinegar Syndrome
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (10th April 2024).
The Film

When a newcomer (Pale Rider's Jerry Gatlin) to the regular card game at Mama Malone's Saloon in Rincon County is caught cheating, spoiled rancher's son Nick Evers (How Green Was My Valley's Roddy McDowall) rallies the other players into lynching the man. Card sharp Van Morgan (The Silencers' Dean Martin) catches up to the posse late in an attempt to stop them only to be knocked unconscious by Nick. When he comes to the next day in the care of Mama Malone (The Changeling's Ruth Springford) and her bartender George (Alien's Yaphet Kotto), it is to the news of an unknown man found hanging from the town bridge with no leads as to the perpetrators. Rather than confronting the killers, Van decides to move on to Denver's card tables, but not until he pays a visit to the ranch of Sig Evers (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance's Denver Pyle) to give a goodbye kiss to young Nora (The Way West's Katherine Justice) and a punch in the face to her brother Nick.

Van has no regrets about departing Rincon County just a month before a gold strike promises to bring fresh pickings to the tables; that is until George shows up to reveal that general store owner Fred Carson (Foxy Brown's Boyd 'Red' Morgan) has been suffocated in a barrel of flower and Evers' ranch hand Stoney Borough (The Don is Dead's George Robotham) was strangled with barbed wire. George surmises that someone is targeting the members of the card game for vengeance in the unknown name of the man they hanged and warns Van off returning to town, figuring that it may not make a difference whether he was involved in the hanging or not. Van, however, decides it would be better to come back and lure the killer into exposing himself rather than look over his shoulder for the rest of his life.

Van returns to a Rincon County booming with new businesses patronized by miners with gold fever, including competition for Mama Malone's Saloon that adds dancing girls to booze and gambling, a barber shop run by Lily Langford (Hang 'em High's Inger Stevens) and staffed entirely with young women who charge a dollar for a shave and twenty dollars for "miscellaneous," as well as a new church run by Jonathan Rudd (Night of the Hunter's Robert Mitchum) who announces "God's House" open for business with a six-shooter. Van calls a meeting of the surviving players – Nick, blacksmith Joe Hurley (The Devil's Brigade's Bill Fletcher), and Evers' ranch hand Mace Jones (Chinatown's Roy Jenson) – and suggests that one of them may be killing the others out of fear of one of them cracking and revealing the truth to Marshall Dana (Ride the High Country's John Anderson). Nick, on the other hand, believes that the killer is an outsider on the evidence of someone leaving fresh flowers on the nameless man's grave, and that one of them has already cracked and identified them to someone out for vengeance. As the killer claims more victims, Nick searches for another scapegoat, whipping up the paranoia and hysteria of the miners who threaten to take matters into their own hands if the marshal cannot protect them. Only Van and Nick know the real reason for the killings… along with the killer.

A studio western directed by workhorse Henry Hathaway (Kiss of Death) top-lining a post-Matt Helm Dean Martin – who had played second banana to John Wayne in Hathaway's The Sons of Katie Elder – does not inspire a lot of interest on paper, and less so when the credits start with a rather monotonous Martin theme song. One the film proper starts, however, what we have is not a standard pre-revisionist western studio oater but a sometimes grisly, occasionally nasty, and surprisingly sexually frank whodunit under the guise of a western that plays like a better-plotted, acted, and stylized version of the underwhelming Spanish/French giallo/paella western hybrid 4 Bullets for Joλ in which a gloved killer targets not only the people who framed a woman for her fiance's murder but also the jury that wrongfully-convicted her. The whodunit aspect actually is diverting with a believable red herring and the performances are engaging even if the actors embody characters who are never fully fleshed out but nevertheless familiar from both the worlds of the western and film noir – both genre specialties of Hathaway – even as the scenario subverts expectations of them.

Nora seems inappropriate love interest for middle-aged Van – although not an unexpected Hollywood pairing of older star and young ingenue – and the script actually recognizes this, with Lily Langford not the expected femme fatale seducing him away but a self-assured character that even Nora ends up liking more than she does Van. Martin still has his easy-going pre-celebrity roast persona charisma as a character who is neither noir fall guy or western man of honor, leaving the tough guy cynicism to Kotto and McDowall who is particularly nasty as a character accused of being unfeeling and dead inside and compared to a machine but carrying a chip on his shoulder of a film noir heavy (or the villain of the rarer examples of the psychological western). The revelation of the killer is less a shock than the motives of the person who tipped them off, and there is a wonderful telltale clue to the killer's identity that is a little giallo-esque. The final confrontation between Van and the killer is a bit of a letdown, although it may indeed be suited to a hero who gets by more so on luck than skill than he would like to admit. Hathaway and screenwriter Marguerite Roberts would follow up 5 Card Stud with the iconic western True Grit.


Consigned to television after its theatrical release, 5 Card Stud did not reach VHS until 1990 – with a cover that featured a poor still of Mitchum and Martin that made it look like an older Republic western – and DVD in 2003 with rather indifferent artwork. Vinegar Syndrome's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray – the third in their "Vinegar Syndrome Labs" sub-label described as a "testing area for releasing genres and eras of film that one might not immediately expect to come from VS" – comes from a new 4K scan of the original camera negatives and is a stunner. The reds of the opening titles and background are better delineated – with emphasis on some credits as a slightly pinker shade – and is one of those titles where the opticals seem to have been cut into the negative so at each dissolve we get moments of a coarser, softer image before it snaps back into crispness. Technicolor hues are vibrant, even in the night-for-night scenes – day-for-night is restricted to a few wide vista shots – and the textures of hair, costumes, wood grain, and rocky exteriors expose the studio gloss of the pre-gritty "revisionist westerns" but not to the film's detriment.


The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is wonderfully clean and free of hiss, scratches, or pops. Dialogue is always clear thanks to an expert mix with a keen attention to crowd scenes – listen to how voices of certain characters stand out and then recede in emphasis during the church hymn scene – while the scoring of Maurice Jarre (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) is of the more background, supportive types that would characterize his American jobs. The sound effects, on the other hand, are frequently loud and startling, from gunfire and foley punches to creaking beams and clanging bells. As the effects never overwhelm the rest of the sound design or distort, one can assume that this was a deliberate choice that puts one in mind of some of the mono mixes of Japanese films from this period.


Extras start off with an audio commentary by author and film historian Brian Hannan who suggests that the film was "dismissed as a standard oater" due not only to the dismiss of Hathaway as just a "workhorse" of a director but also because it came between Hathaways two bigger Wayne westerns and just before the likes of The Wild Bunch. Hannan makes the case for Hathaway as an auteur not only of noir films but of westerns, pointing out the recurring visual motifs and his visual style. He also discusses the contribution of screenwriter Roberts and the changes to the source novel for the better, as well as making the case that the film could be also be considered a "feminist western" due to the deployment of the three principal female characters and the theme of female ownership – ownership being defined as investment in the community – noting that Evers planned to leave his ranch not to his son but split between son and daughter, the maternal but not passive nature of Mama Malone towards Van and the town, and Lily's business, as well as how the inaction of male figures like Van and the marshal leads to violence.

"Jack of All Trades" (21:35) is an interview with film critic Walter Chaw who discusses Hathaway's origins in an entertainment family and as a child actor, as well as the influence on him of director Allan Dwan (Brewster's Millions), Hathaway's tenure as assistant director under various A-list directors and actors at Fox and MGM, his noir films and his westerns, his collaborations with Randolph Scott, John Wayne, and Marilyn Monroe, and stating that the same critics who ponder the directorial choices of auteurs should be asking the same questions of "workhorse" Hathaway's films.

"A Woman of True Grit" (13:41) is an interview with filmmaker Lizzie Francke on screenwriter Roberts who grew up in Colorado as the daughter of a marshal, went on the road with a traveling salesman, and ended up in California where she started as a journalist covering murder trials and then got a job in the story department at Fox where shse assigned western novels because of her experience in "coded masculine activities." Francke also discusses how Roberts got on with directors when she became a screenwriter, her resistance to some of the changes directors made to her work as well as her greater interest in female characters than male ones, and her refusal to hide or name names as a communist when she and her husband were persecuted. Shot on Zoom with occasionally poor audio, the interview is transcribed with non-optional English subtitles.


The disc comes with a reversible cover – which oddly reproduces on the reverse the artwork used for Paramount's DVD on the inside – and a 16-page booklet with an essay by Jim Healy which actually does not overlap that much with anything conveyed in the audio and video extras as Healy covers Hathaway, Roberts, and producer Hal B. Wallis (Casablanca) who had full control over his Paramount productions from 1945 onward, and the practice of repurposing noir plots for westerns, and the more subtle influences of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, while only finding the film "merely good." The booklet does also features the DVD artwork on the cover but does reproduce some of the original poster art inside.

A limited edition of 4,000 copies ordered directly from Vinegar Syndrome includes a spot gloss slipcover designed by Tony Stella.


An almost forgotten studio oater from "workhorse" Henry Hathaway starring Dean Martin, 5 Card Stud is actually a sometimes grisly, occasionally nasty, and surprisingly sexually frank whodunit under the guise of a western.


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