“A deuce in the hole in this game is as good as an ace.”
So says a character near the beginning of the 1939 film Destry Rides Again starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich.
Directed by George Marshall and based on a popular novel by Max Brand, the film continues to entertain as a classic western from the genre’s golden era. It also makes a especially clever use of a five-card stud hand right off the top, using the game both to kick off the story and to introduce a kind of symbolic significance contained in the above-quoted line.
As I write about in Poker & Pop Culture, in western films a poker game is more or less a required element, not unlike horses, guns, and Stetson hats. In some cases the card game happening over in a saloon corner has little significance other than to help fill out a typical Old West scene. However, in some of the better westerns the poker played onscreen often turns out to be central to the film’s story and larger messages the film is trying to convey.
Destry Rides Again is an example of poker being used both to affect the plot and to introduce what turn out to be multiple themes in the movie. Let’s start with the plot.
The film opens with the sound of gunfire and the image of a sign saying “Welcome to Bottleneck.” The camera then pans to a raucous brawl happening outside the Last Chance Saloon, with more gunshots and shouts punctuating the rousing opening theme.
We’re being shown (in an unsubtle way) that Bottleneck is a violent, dangerous place. Fade to a relatively quieter scene — a game of five-card stud happening upstairs in the saloon.
As we’ll soon learn, the players include a local rancher named Lem Claggett and the saloon’s owner, Kent. Claggett’s looks wide-eyed and jovial as he announces his action. “Well, if I don’t bet ’em you may not think I got ’em, so I’m betting,” he says with a grin.
Meanwhile Kent looks much more circumspect, the brim of his hat casting a shadow that obscures his expression. “That’s good,” he says as he folds, revealing neither his hole card nor his face.
Claggett gleefully rakes in the pot, and without any prompting shows he was bluffing, delivering that line about a deuce being as good as an ace as he does.
“I never knew money was so easy to get!” he laughs.
If you’ve watched any westerns before, you already have some idea who the good guys and bad guys are here. You also know Claggett probably shouldn’t be so cocky about his bluff getting through.
A brief musical interlude follows introducing Frenchy, the saloon singer played by Dietrich. Playing against her glamorous image, the German actress enjoyed a career boost from this film. (Fans of of the satirical western Blazing Saddles might recognize how Madeline Kahn’s Lili von Shtüpp in that film is a spoof of Dietrich/Frenchy.)
Back to the poker game, where we watch another hand that (perhaps unsurprisingly) doesn’t go so well for Claggett.
Frenchy is in attendance for this hand, having arrived to serve coffee to the men in the game. Once more Kent and Claggett build up a pot, and while we can’t see the cards the action suggests that by fifth street Kent has a pair of eights among his four upcards while Claggett has two aces showing.
Claggett gives a short speech in which he says he doesn’t think Kent has three eights (i.e., an eight as his hole card). “So pop goes the weasel!” he says while pushing all his chips in the middle. As Kent decides what to do, Claggett rechecks his hole card. It’s the A♣, meaning he has trip aces — that is, an unbeatable hand no matter what Kent’s hole card is.
Rather than fold, though, Kent asks Claggett “Is that enough?” The taunt prompts Claggett to add further to his bet by committing his 3,000-acre ranch containing 15,000 head of cattle.
The action is interrupted for a moment when Frenchy spills coffee on Claggett. He’s briefly bothered, but soon refocuses on his opponent. “Call my bet or ain’t ya?” he asks.
Kent does call, and with the same hubris he demonstrated before Claggett crows he has “three shiny aces” while showing his hole card. Only, it’s not an ace… it’s the 2♠!
Claggett is flabbergasted. “I had an ace in the hole! How’d that deuce get there?” he cries. “Maybe you only seen one end of it,” says the player to his left. A broken Claggett is soon tossed out of the saloon.
The surreptitious replacement of the ace with a deuce provides a nifty call back to Claggett’s earlier boast from before. As it turns out, in this game a deuce in the hole is not as good as an ace — especially when your opponent put it there!
As Claggett says later on, “the game was crooked as a hog’s tail.”
The fact is, everything is crooked in lawless Bottleneck, a place where Kent appears to wield unfettered power with Frenchy, a group of toughs acting as his henchmen, and even the town’s mayor, Judge Slade, all enabling his villainy.
In fact, when Sheriff Keogh arrives to inquire about the crooked poker game on Claggett’s behalf, he’s summarily shot dead!
Making up a story about Keogh having “been suddenly called out of town on urgent business” and that “he’ll be gone permanently,” Slade appoints the town drunk Washington “Wash” Dimsdale as the new sheriff, a seeming guarantee that corruption in the town will continue unabated.
Into this maelstrom arrives one Thomas Jefferson “Tom” Destry, Jr., portrayed by James Stewart in an early role (and his first western). After swearing off drinking, the new sheriff Wash has called on Tom to be his deputy, a nod to Wash having before served as a deputy when Tom’s late father had been sheriff.
You can see where this is going. Young Tom will have to set things right in Bottleneck and thus fulfill Wash’s proclamation that “Destry will ride again!”
While Destry Sr. was apparently a legendary lawman, Destry Jr. seems perhaps less well-fitted for a similar role. The fact that he refuses to wear a gun makes him an object of ridicule, causing Kent and others not to take him seriously.
“Careful… that’s No-Gun Destry!” cracks one of the many who disrespect his authority.
While Destry Sr. was apparently held in high esteem, Destry Jr. ranks much lower. It’s a bit like comparing a deuce to an ace.
Destry eventually figures out something nefarious has happened to Keogh. He also quickly pegs Kent as likely having been responsible. Meanwhile he begins to prove himself in other, creative ways, including his handling of a memorable brawl between Frenchy and the jealous wife of a saloon patron.
I’ll pass over other machinations of the plot in order to highlight one in particular. Destry recognizes that the “game” in Bottleneck is crooked. But he also realizes there’s a way he can beat it — by bluffing.
Destry knows he can’t pin Keogh’s murder on anyone without a body. So he suggests to both Kent and Mayor Slade he has found a body when in actuality he has not.
As Destry anticipates, Kent immediately sends one of his thugs to check on the location where Keogh’s body has been buried. Sheriff Wash follows and arrests the man, charging him with murder. That sets up still more bluffing by Destry continues to try to implicate Kent.
All doesn’t go exactly according to plan — after all, Kent, Mayor Slade, and the others are incapable of playing it straight.
And while I’ll leave the rest of the story for you to enjoy on your own, you get the idea — the card game at the beginning isn’t just a bit of color helping to fill out an Old West setting. It’s vital to the entire film. Not only does it get the plot going, it introduces not just one but several themes that emerge over the course of the story…
The game is crooked, much like the corruption pervading Bottleneck.
Bad guys might win by cheating, but good guys can win, too, particularly if they can pull off a well-managed bluff.
And much as young Tom goes about things a little differently than did his famous father apparently did, the second Destry ultimately proves himself the equal of the first.
In other words, a deuce can sometimes be as good as an ace, if you play your cards right.
“5-Card Fiction” is an ongoing series examining fictional poker hands from film, television, and elsewhere. Have a favorite fictional poker hand you’d like to see discussed? Tweet your suggestions @PokerStarsBlog.