The Gambler from Natchez (1954) 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 Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for 1947’s Ride the Pink Horse) and his gorgeous daughter (Debra Paget).
The Count of Monte Cristo-style 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 the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Look for John Ford mainstay Woody Strode as one of those aiding Captain Colby; and Juanita Moore (Douglas Sirk’s 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. It’s available on DVD-R as part of the Fox Cinema Archives series. 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 a nice crisp print.
Laura Grieve is a lifelong film enthusiast whose thoughts on classic films and Disney can be found at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, established in 2005. Follow Laura on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LaurasMiscMovie