The Mississippi Gambler (1953)
No longer under the 20th Century Fox banner, Tyrone Power found himself working for the folks over at Universal International who had a steady stream of westerns under production with stars like Rory Calhoun and Audie Murphy. Honestly either one of those two leading men could have taken up this title role but with Power onboard, the stakes are somewhat higher where box office receipts are concerned.
Cinematographer turned director, Rudolph Mate helms this feature that plays more like an adventure as opposed to an outright western thanks to much of the story taking place onboard a riverboat gambling den as opposed to a frontier town. There’s a colorful opening to the film as Ty meets up with a hick/con man played in colorful fashion by the veteran scene stealer John McIntire. The pair hit it off and will share in the adventures to come. That is in all matters except those of the heart. Ty is going to have his hands full with feisty Piper Laurie and beautiful Julie Adams. Still trying to settle on a screen name, Julie is billed as Julia in this early effort before finding screen immortality swimming in the Black Lagoon with the Gill Man.
Ty is a very talented gambler who plays it straight. No slipping cards from the bottom of the deck which early on finds him in hot water with the gamblers who prey upon anyone who can’t spot the marked deck or cheating card sharks. No sooner do they board the floating gambling den and Ty runs afoul of Piper Laurie. He’s captivated by the 18 year old starlet from the moment they meet while she is quick to turn angry when shown up and has nothing but contempt for gamblers. More so when her brother loses a valuable necklace to Ty that is a family heirloom at the tables. This leads to a colorful exit for Ty and John before they get fleeced of their winnings by local river rats. With their friendship cemented the pair hit New Orleans and soon John will find himself in suit and tie though he’s quick to comically point out he still insists on keeping his business suit which is in essence, clothes fit for a street bum. All part of his con man act.
Throwing some Ty styled Zorro moves into the proceedings, our handsome leading man meets Paul Cavanagh, a fencing teacher who knew Ty’s father and is impressed by the young man’s skill with the sword. And wouldn’t you just know it, Piper is Cavanagh’s daughter. His son played by John Baer isn’t nearly as classy as his Father and their falling out will play into the plot following a duel of honor that sees the son break the code of firing after 10 paces against Ty.
Still to come is Dennis Weaver as a would be gambler and his sister, Julie Adams, who only has eyes for Ty once she’s left destitute and he comes to her rescue. Still, he can’t get Piper out of his mind. Honestly, he should because Julie would make a fine wife while Piper offers him up nothing but trouble. One of those can’t live with her/can’t live without her romances. Perhaps Ty is lucky at cards but unlucky in love as the saying goes. It’s all going to culminate in a three way romantic entanglement and a bit of action for the male going members of the audience.
Piper Laurie mentions this production in her bio and talks of Ty being nothing but a pro and her countless costume changes in a role she coveted. Upon seeing it she realized it was another of the same she’d been playing for the studio since signing on for a string of Tony Curtis duets. She’d previously worked with the director on the Curtis flick, The Prince Who Was a Thief.
The best performances in the film shouldn’t come as a surprise. They’re from McIntire and Cavanagh. Both were long time character players and made most any production they were involved in that much better. I love the fact that McIntire was still acting and feisty as hell playing the old timer who owned the slobbery dog in the Tom Hanks flick, Turner and Hooch.
This has been a long sought after title for yours truly and thanks to it being released by the Universal Vault Collection I’ve caught up to it. I won’t say I didn’t like it but found it rather ordinary despite the color photography. It kind of reminds me of another western of the same era that I have mixed feelings about, The Iron Mistress, that featured Alan Ladd lusting after Virginia Mayo for a couple of hours.
Either way, it’s a look back to Tyrone Power in his post war years and a couple of starlets who went on to successes of their own in the years ahead.