Thursday, January 23, 2014

"5 Card Stud" and "Rehearsal for Murder" Bend the Mystery Genre

A simple touch can transform a film from conventional to interesting. As evidence, I offer two exhibits from the mystery genre: director Henry Hathaway's 1968 Western 5 Card Stud and the 1982 made-for-TV movie Rehearsal for Murder, written by William Link and Richard Levinson.

The opening scenes of 5 Card Stud play out like a typical Western. After a card shark is caught cheating in a saloon poker game, the other players decide to lynch him. When Van Morgan (Dean Martin) tries to save the stranger, the back of his head encounters the handle of a Colt .45. The card shark dies at the end of a rope and Van leaves town in disgust. He returns only after hearing about the sudden deaths of two members of the lynching mob. When the deadly pattern continues, Van suspects that someone is avenging the hanged man. Could the killer be the new gun-toting reverend (Robert Mitchum) that just arrived in town?

 This crafty variation of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians never takes itself too seriously. That attitude extends to its two stars, both of whom were past their prime by the late 1960s. Dean Martin is ideally cast as the befuddled professional gambler pressed into service as the de facto detective. Robert Mitchum, an obvious choice for the enigmatic reverend, gives an acceptable performance, but the role requires little effort on his part. 

Still, 5 Card Stud holds one's attention for its 103-minute running time. Its only significant faults are an uninspired conclusion (i.e., it could have used a twist) and the propensity to waste the talents of Inger Stevens.

The pretty Swedish-born actress had wrapped up her fairly popular TV series The Farmer's Daughter in 1966. However, she subsequently found meaty film roles hard to come by and typically ended up as the inconsequential love interest in movies like Hang 'Em High and Firecreek. Emotional instability--she often had affairs with her leading men, to include Dean Martin--may have contributed to her apparent suicide in 1970. After her death, tabloids reported that she had married an African American man in 1961 and kept it a secret.

As for 5 Card Stud, some film buffs claim it's an unofficial remake of the 1950 film noir Dark City. There may be general similarities, but the inspiration is clearly more Agatha Christie. If you find Western mysteries intriguing, I also recommend checking out the 1957 B-movie Joe Dakota with Jock Mahoney.

With a resume that includes creating Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, William Link and Richard Levinson know a thing or two about the mystery genre. And, like Agatha Christie, they're not above breaking the rules of mystery fiction (see S.S. Van Dine's famous Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories). After all, these are the two guys who revealed the killer's identity in the opening scene of each Columbo episode. Still, Rehearsal for Murder requires one's careful attention--even after a character notes that a well-written mystery "takes the audience by the hand and leads them in the wrong direction."

Robert Preston stars as playwright Alex Dennison, who assembles a group of actors in an empty theater to do a reading of his latest work. It quickly becomes evident that his actual intent is to unmask the person who murdered his fiancee the previous year. In flashback, we're shown that stage star Monica Welles (Lynn Redgrave) apparently took her own life on the opening night of her latest play. However, the evidence is sketchy at best--her final words were typewritten. But why would anyone want to kill Monica?

The stage setting provides Link and Levinson with the opportunity to play with the construct of murder as a form of acting. After all, isn't a killer acting when he or she lies about an alibi? And isn't adding a suicide note to a crime scene similar to creating a stage setting for a play? In both cases, the killer plays the role of playwright, trying to convince the police and others (the audience) that they have seen or heard something different from reality.

Lynn Redgrave plays the murder victim.
Unfortunately, despite a game cast that includes Patrick Macnee and Jeff Goldblum, Rehearsal for Murder falls just short of the mark. Even at a short 75-minutes, it seems sluggish in spots. And after one twist at the midway point, the viewer starts looking for another. In the end, despite its cleverness, the murderer's identify becomes pretty obvious. It doesn't help that Link and Levinson, perhaps inadvertently, steal a page from a classic mystery novel (not revealed here...hey, no spoilers!).

Still, there's enough here to warrant a viewing, though I'd steer Robert Preston fans to another 1980s outing that featured the classic film star: the surprisingly entertaining The Last Starfighter.


  1. I enjoy 5 CARD STUD for its amusing cast, including Martin, Mitchum, and the always entertaining Roddy McDowall. Good showcase of these interesting pictures!

  2. I haven't seen 5 Card Stud, but I think I'd like it. It's too bad the other one falls through -- what a cast! I loved Robert Preston in The Last Starfighter! My boys were just the right age when that came out and we all loved it. Of course, I love Robert Preston in just about anything. Good one, Rick!

  3. I always liked Five Card Stud, even if the bad guy is fairly obvious. Robert Preston is really at his best in Peckinpah's Junior Bonner.