By Marc S. Sanders
I never learned how to play poker. I’ve hardly ever stepped foot in a casino. I played a slot machine once, at the encouragement of my wife and lost $2.63. It nearly ended our marriage. I know I can have an addictive personality. Therefore, I opted to steer clear of the tables and hold on to the funds I earned, thereby respecting my limitations. Nevertheless, I always get a kick out of watching a gambling movie. Give me any film set in Vegas or Atlantic City, and I’ll get hooked on watching the actors sitting around the smoke-filled tables while putting down the wildest and craziest hands imaginable. New Orleans during the Depression also makes for a great setting for Steve McQueen as The Cincinnati Kid.
Norman Jewison took over directing duties following the firing of Sam Peckinpaugh. Jewison has been more inventive in other films like The Thomas Crown Affair, In The Heat Of The Night or Moonstruck (maybe his best film). Yet, what he lacks in by the book filmmaking, he makes up for in embracing his colorful collection of actors beyond straight man McQueen. Joan Blondell is exceptionally fun as the buxom drag smoking, card dealing Lady Fingers. Karl Malden is fine as the weak sidekick/would have been mentor to The Kid, Rip Torn is a good behind the scenes villain looking to fix a high stakes game to make himself whole, while getting some vengeance. The one player you love to watch though, is Edward G. Robinson as The Man to beat; strike that, call him The Man that anyone would love to sit at a table if only to just play his game. He is the regally clad Lancey Howard and he’s the elder one, The Number One, to beat. Confident with street swagger, Steve McQueen leads this film as the kid who knows he can beat Lancey, but he’s got to beat him fairly. No help from anyone who is looking to fix the match for their own personal stake in the game.
Two women also highlight this film wonderfully, Ann Margaret and Tuesday Weld. Both have a sexy style to them, but their performances vary based on their character backgrounds. McQueen is positioned between them. Margaret portrays Melba, as Malden’s dame on the side. She’s the gal who likes to go to the cock fights and hop in bed with an available man nearby. Weld aptly plays the innocent farm girl, Christian. I like to view the red head and the blond as angel and devil on the shoulders of the protagonist.
Again, there’s nothing so eyepopping here, but the cast is entirely engaging. It’s the film’s second act that lays on the excitement as The Kid, Lancey and a host of other players, like a sloppy card shark played by Jack Weston and an elegant Cab Calloway participate in a binge til your broke stud game in a smokey hotel room. Bills are tossed into the center of the green velvet covered table. The smoke gets thicker. The ties get looser, and the fun is watching everyone else get undone while McQueen and Robinson maintain their cool. The hands that are played are always the biggest, most unlikely hands to match one another, over and over again, but then again in a movie there’s really nothing fun about a club, spade, heart and two diamonds of different denominations. The suspense builds in Hal Ashby’s editing of the one-on-one climatic match as thousands upon thousands are nonchalantly tossed in the pot before that fifth card on each side of the table is ultimately revealed. Will The Kid reign supreme or will Lancey uphold his reputation? This is what going to the movies are all about. You’ll appreciate the ending to The Cincinnati Kid is not all that obvious as you get closer and closer to its finish.