Judge Brett Cullum used to work the card clubs as The Greater Akron Metroplex Young Adult, until this guy came along...
Lancey Howard: Gets down to what it's all about, doesn't it? Making the wrong
move at the right time.
Poker, pin-up girls, and one icy cool leading man—The Cincinnati Kid is as hip now as when it was released in 1965. The title has resurfaced on DVD as part of the Steve McQueen collection from Warner Brothers, and the disc's arrival is perfectly timed given the renewed interest in poker rampaging across the country. Can The Cincinnati Kid flop a straight, or is it doomed to be left holding a pair of deuces?
Facts of the Case
Steve McQueen (Bullitt) is the Kid, or Eric Stoner, a young talented poker player who seems to hold markers on anyone playing the game in New Orleans. Edward G. Robinson (The Man With Two Faces) plays the Man, also known as Lancey Howard, the current reigning poker champion who comes to New Orleans to play. A game between the Kid and the Man is arranged through a mutual friend called The Shooter (Karl Malden, On the Waterfront). Bets are placed, loyalties are tested, and two women square off for the Kid's attention. Yet all of it frames what The Cincinnati Kid does best—show some really tense hands of high-stakes five card stud.
The Cincinnati Kid had trouble getting off the ground. Famed director Sam Peckinpah was shooting the movie in moody black and white, and wanted to insert a nude scene with an extra named Sharon Tate. The producers fired Peckinpah because they objected to the extra sexuality, and brought in Norman Jewison, who was being given his first shot at a drama. Jewison turned out to be a wise choice. He worked well with McQueen, and would also helm The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) with the actor. He gives the film the right balance of tension and light moments to keep the movie interesting, and added a lot of flavor by using the New Orleans locations to provide the jazzy backdrop missing from the source novel (which was set in St. Louis).
The film is best when it is at the poker table, and that's where it spends almost a full hour. Poker isn't by nature a cinematic game, but people's reactions to it certainly are. The drama and the tension come from watching the players try to hide what their hand is. It's ironic that we are watching people trying hard not to act in any way, and losing the battle so the audience can see their cracks and faults. The strongest hand of The Cincinnati Kid is that it captures the highs and lows and natural rhythm of a marathon poker game. It's an old fashioned antiquated game, since they are dealing five card stud. Poker fans will recognize that this brand of the game has recently been supplanted by Texas Hold 'Em because the percentages in five card stud are easier to navigate. In this variant, players have four cards face up on the table, and one hidden from other players. Another old fashioned notion is how the players do not use chips. Real money floats across the table, and from a cinematic viewpoint it makes it more nerve-wracking. Jewison resists the urge to make any of the plays predictable, so it's quite engaging.
The cast is a wonderful stock company of character actors. The Cincinnati Kid is all about people playing a game that rests heavily on personality, so they all had to have bigger-than-life personas to pop off the screen. Joan Blondell (The Public Enemy), Cab Calloway (the famous musician), Rip Torn (Men In Black), and Jack Weston (Dirty Dancing) all play colorful archetypes at the poker table. The love interests include Ann-Margret (Viva Las Vegas) as the "bad girl," and Tuesday Weld (Thief) as the "good girl." Ann-Margaret has a ball with her sexy vixen role; she's a real stand-out in the movie. Weld is sweet and natural as the country girl who isn't sure if she wants to be involved with a professional poker player whom she can't read.
This is a Steve McQueen movie, and he certainly gets center stage throughout even though he's surrounded by some Hollywood legends. The Cincinnati Kid seemed like a personal response to Paul Newman's The Hustler, just substituting poker for pool. McQueen and Newman were intense screen rivals, so it makes sense that the hyper-competitive McQueen would leap at a chance to take on a project that could potentially one-up Newman. At heart The Cincinnati Kid is a simple, straightforward morality tale—and not a subtle one in the slightest. Even though McQueen is often an understated actor, here he's in a movie with blatant metaphors like cock fights, women chewing apples, and well-placed New Orleans extras echoing and commenting on the action. The formula works well to showcase McQueen as a man who always keeps his cool even when surrounded by vibrant large events and people. This is definitely one of Steve McQueen's signature movies, and it's a great taste of the actor who seems to be enjoying a resurgence of interest in his work.
Warner Brothers provides a solid package for The Cincinnati Kid. The transfer is sturdy and quite clear. Washed-out colors and grain are present, but Jewison admits they were a style choice. The film was shot in a matted widescreen; here it's translated with a solid anamorphic treatment. The sound gets no doctoring, and pumps out a distortion-free basic two-channel monaural mix. Extras include a vintage documentary about the man who taught the cast how to handle cards, and the original theatrical trailer presented in anamorphic widescreen. Both of these extras are spoilerish, and I would suggest diving head-first into the feature before viewing them. Jewison provides a running commentary that is quite insightful and full of anecdotes about dealing with the cast and crew. Also included is an entertaining scene-specific commentary with Dave Foley (The Kids in the Hall) and Phillip Gordon (professional poker player), the hosts of Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown, who analyze the poker games. It's an entertaining alternate look at the movie. They point out some funny tidbits and technical snafus the players and dealers make.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Steve McQueen starred in more action-packed movies than The Cincinnati Kid, and fans of his more exciting work might find the movie slow and plodding. The Cincinnati Kid might very well baffle modern audiences with its glacial pace and the time it spend on non-poker related bits that flesh out the cast. The movie has a dated look and feel to it some may find off-putting. Even though it's a character study movie, I would have to say The Hustler trumps it with a few more engaging characters. The people here are common types who don't change much from beginning to end. McQueen seems to get to hold all the cards with character development, though Edward G. Robinson holds his own quite well. They seem to be the only two who get to do a wide range of interesting bits that show several dimensions.
The deck was definitely stacked in favor of The Cincinnati Kid—a great cast, an energetic director, and the sights and sounds of the "Big Easy." It's a great look at Steve McQueen and a classic game of five card stud. You've got plenty of eye candy with Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld on board, and slick style coming from Karl Malden and Edward G. Robinson. Poker enthusiasts will find it engrossing, and even people like me who limit themselves to video poker now and then on a cell phone will find it a rich character study with a lot of tension. It's definitely worth joining the game, or going all in and purchasing.
This forty-year-old movie still can deal a great hand, so it's free to go. Warner Brothers added some nice value to a solid transfer, so they're free to join in the next round and up the ante all they want. There's no limits on this one. No string bets. The Cincinnati Kid can check and raise.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Norman Jewison
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