Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Gambler From Natchez (1954)

THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ is part Western, part swashbuckler, and 100% entertaining.

It's the perfect movie to watch at the end of a long day -- undemanding yet well-made and enjoyable. Another blogger aptly called it "a merry 88 minutes of malarkey."

The story plays out rather like one of the more dramatic episodes of my favorite TV series, MAVERICK, and that comes as no surprise once one realizes that co-screenwriter Gerald Drayson Adams would go on to write several strong episodes of that classic series, including one of my favorites, "The Savage Hills."

The movie starts in fine fashion with opening credits music so stirring that my husband came in from the other room to see who'd composed it. The answer: Lionel Newman.

It's the 1840s, and Captain Vance Colby (Dale Robertson) returns home from military service only to discover his beloved father, a famed gambler, was murdered at a casino.

Vance makes it his mission to avenge his father's death and one by one tracks down the three men responsible, aided by a riverboat captain (Thomas Gomez, a past Oscar nominee for RIDE THE PINK HORSE) and his gorgeous daughter (Debra Paget).

The MONTE CRISTO style story is pleasingly presented, with a well-paced script and colorful settings. (The Los Angeles Arboretum stands in for Mississippi.) Vance writes the names of the three men he seeks on a playing card and one by one tears the names off the card as he finds them.

Debra Paget's many fans will enjoy her as the fiery bayou girl who wants Captain Colby and is determined to have him, rather than see him end up with the delicate blonde Ivette (Lisa Daniels, whose British accent sometimes peeks through). I wish that TCM would invite Paget to a future festival, as I would love to have her work honored and see her in person.

Kevin McCarthy is the chief villain, a couple of years before he starred in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). Look for Woody Strode as one of those aiding Captain Colby; Juanita Moore (IMITATION OF LIFE) has a small role as Ivette's maid.

THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ was a Panoramic Production, released by 20th-Century Fox. It was directed by Henry Levin and filmed in Technicolor by Lloyd Ahern.

THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ is available on DVD-R from the Fox Cinema Archives. Many widescreen-era FCA releases have aspect ratio issues, but I thought this film, which IMDb says was originally shown in a 1:66 ratio, looked just fine as a fullscreen DVD release, with nice crisp print. I thought the DVD looked better than a reviewer at Home Theater Forum so potential purchasers may want to read that review for an alternate take.

This film can also be rented from ClassicFlix, and as I write this it's currently available on YouTube.


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