The Cincinnati Kid [50 Films Older Than Me #36]

A while ago (indeed, almost a whole year ago), it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #36.

Spoilers ahead.  

The Cincinnati Kid

Directed by Norman Jewison

Release Year:  1965 (5 years before I was born).

What it is about:  Eric “The Kid” Stoner is an up-and-coming poker player looking to establish himself in depression-era New Orleans. To this end, he challenges the a more seasoned player, Lancey “The Man” Howard to a game. Along the way, he faces complications in his relationship with his girlfriend Christian, his older friend Shooter (who, as the dealer of the game, is being pressured by an outsider to cheat in the Kid’s favor), and the advances of Shooter’s promiscuous wife Melba.

Starring Steve McQueen as the Kid, Edward G. Robinson as the Man, Ann-Margaret as Melba, Karl Malden as Shooter, Tuesday Weld as Christian, and Rip Torn as Slade (the corrupt player who blackmails Shooter into cheating). Joan Blondell features as Lady Fingers, another old pro serving as a backup dealer during the big game. Cab Calloway and Jack Weston play two of the other players. Karl Swenson (Mr. Hansen in Little House on the Prairie makes an appearance as Christian’s father.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  This was another one that I’d never really heard of, except for preparing for this series.

Reality: As I go through these films that I thought I had picked out fairly randomly, it’s funny to continually run into connections that exist between the selections. One of the most comment such links is the presence o the same actors in different movies, particularly when they are actors that I’ve heard of before but never really watched in anything. That’s what it was like realizing that Ann-Margaret was in The Cincinnati Kid. I’ve long known here name and had a general impression of her, but it wasn’t until I watched Viva Las Vegas! a little while ago that I’d actually seen her in anything, at least that remember. Viva Las Vegas! is only a year earlier than The Cincinnati Kid, but it’s a pretty different movie, and her character has a totally different vibe.

Ann-Margaret’s character is Melba, who is married to the much-older-than-her gambler Shooter (Karl Malden) but spends most of this movie attempting (and eventually succeeding) to seduce Steve McQueen.

She’s a real piece of work, really–flagrantly being unfaithful to her husband, acting like she’s friends with with the Kid’s girlfriend Christian even while she’s after her guy, and turning on the Kid pretty harshly when his luck turns sour.

But that’s the world that The Cincinnati Kid postulates–things are rough, things are unforgiving, and people are messed up and broken.

This is most seen in Eric “the Kid” Stoner himself, of course. He’s a good gambler and he’s got a nice thing going with Christian, but he still wants more. He doesn’t just want money: he wants honor and respect, and to be known as the best.

To this end he gets himself into a high-stakes game with “the Man”, an older player who recognizes the Kid for the threat to his reputation that he is. These two forces come together for the last third of the movie in an extended game of stud poker which is as gripping as any dramatic face-off or sports climax that I’ve ever seen.

The fact that it is stud poker is perfect–with no cards to trade-in, this is a game of nerves and timing, and the face-off between the two leads is riveting. The acting and directing come together masterfully to build up the tension, and the turn of the final card is a moment of such audacious editing that you have to just sit up and cheer, even as you are feeling the gut-punch to the Kid that the card represents.

I’ll try to explain, even though this is cinema and thus the full impact can’t be delivered in just words. The end of the game is all about whether the Man has the jack of diamonds–if he does, he wins everything. All the money has been bet and the card is revealed–in close up, we see it’s the jack. And then in rapid succession we see that everyone else also sees it–the Kid, Melba, Shooter, everyone. Extreme close-ups of all their eyes are perfectly matched with the eyes on the face on the jack as the impact of the card is felt by all the characters in the room. It’s like watching something out of a spaghetti Western.

Steve McQueen is great as the Kid, although apparently he was considered by many to be too old for the role. Its not clear how old the Kid is supposed to be–McQueen was in his mid-30s at the time, but he always looked kind of old and grizzled even when he was a teenager. But even so he brings a great blend of apparently effortless coolness along with a desperation for validation that the role needs.

And Edward G. Robinson is excellent as “the Man”. The character is coming into the battle from the opposite direction with equal force and commitment. But while the Man can be arrogant, it’s a thin cover for a lot of insecurity and a need to prove himself in the face of the up-and-comer. Robinson is excellent at conveying these contrasts, and avoids every temptation to turn his character into a villain or to even make him unlikable. There are villainous figures in the movie (most notably Rip Torn’s Slade) but for the most part the world is just full of different degrees of sinners.

The whole supporting cast is strong–including the aforementioned Ann-Margaret and Rip Torn. Joan Blondell is lively as Lady Fingers, and all the other poker players are given nicely specific personalities.

Even bit players like Ken Grant as the unnamed shoeshine boy are solid. Especially good is Karl Malden the brow-beaten Shooter. He’s a sympathetic figure and it’s sad to see him get brow-beaten into violating his principles–but violate them he does, because again that’s the sort of story this is.

If there’s a “angelic” figure anywhere about it’s Tuesday Weld’s Christian. Her forgiveness of the Kid, even welcoming him back into her after his flagrant infidelity, is potentially unrealistic or just incredibly naive, take your pick. Either way it certainly eases the bitter pill that the end of the movie otherwise gives us.

Apparently, it’s not the ending that director Norman Jewison wanted to use. He wanted to end on a freeze frame of Steve McQueen after he lost the coin-toss game, following his bigger loss at the poker table, but the film’s producer overrode him (the other version does exist, and can be seen on Youtube). The longer ending is not as impactful, but it is certainly less of a bitter pill to swallow than Jewison’s vision, and I think ultimately more satisfying (just by being less abrupt).

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? It’s not a high-stakes story (which is a bit ironic, I guess) but it’s still a good movie and a good glimpse into both the high-end and low-end of its world of serious gamblers from days gone by. Norman Jewison has always been good at creating an immersive sense of the look and feel of a setting with his films, and this one is no exception. The characters are strong, and whilst not admirable, they are deeply sympathetic and pitiable.

See here for the Master List.

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