THE CINCINNATI KID is ‘Eric Stoner’ (Steve McQueen), a hot-shot young poker player making his rep in 1930s New Orleans. ‘The Kid’ (as everyone refers to him) has his game set on upsetting the top dog status of “Lancey Howard’, better known as ‘The Man’ (Edward G. Robinson), in town for a legendary match-up with other high-stakes players. The Kid also has to figure out how to deal with side bets to his personal pot from amoral vixen ‘Melba’ (Ann-Margret), married to his slippery pal ‘Shooter’ (Karl Malden), and the nicer but less-exciting country gal ‘Christian’ (Tuesday Weld). Shooter’s in trouble with ruthless area big-shot ‘William Jefferson Slade’ (Rip Torn), who means to break ‘The Man’, even if it involves forcing Shooter and The Kid to cheat. The Kid doesn’t cheat. Shut up and deal…*
Even if you’re not riveted by skeevy guys sitting around a table trying to fool each other over pieces of decorated paper, this deck-loaded 1965 drama is a good bet to place, showing a full house credits-wise, its smart and slick delivery impacting positively on several careers, negatively on one. **
Norman Jewison had directed four light-comedies in a row, and was given reins of his first taut drama feature after Sam Peckinpah was summarily fired from the project. Richard Jessup’s novel was initially adapted by Paddy Chayefsky, then redone by Ring Lardner Jr., his first credited job since he’d been blacklisted in 1947. In turn, that draft was reworked by Terry Southern, hot after Dr. Strangelove. Future director Hal Ashby was the film editor for Jewison, who used Philip H. Lathrop as cinematographer for the shoot, on location in New Orleans. Ray Charles does the title tune, with music by Lalo Schifrin.
Though the earlier, similar The Hustler always gets more praise, I prefer this deck shuffler to that bleak and depressing pool haul. McQueen’s in his cool element, Ann-Margret is white-hot sinful (and pretty good, among a string of duds that she struggled through), and it’s an offbeat touch to have the normally sexpot-cast Weld playing second fiddle (she replaced Sharon Tate). Best of all is veteran Robinson, showing he was still very much in the game at 72.
A solid hit, it grossed $15,260,000. Along with the marquee talent above, the film boasted a solid lineup of supporting actors: Joan Blondell (getting a good amount of critical notice as ‘Ladyfingers’), Jack Weston (playing it gross as ‘Pig’), Cab Calloway, Jeff Corey, Theo Marcuse, Karl Swenson, Irene Tedrow, Emile Genest, Ron Soble and Dub Taylor. 102 minutes.
* Poker aficionado as well as distinguished biographer and critic, Anthony Holden in his 1990 book “Big Deal:A Year as a Professional Poker Player”, stated “the odds against any full house losing to any straight flush, in a two-handed game, are 45,102,781 to 1”, adding the chances of both such hands appearing in one deal are “a laughable” 332,220,508,619 to 1….”If these two played 50 hands of stud an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week, the situation would arise about once every 443 years.” So there.
** The maverick Peckinpah’s reputation for being difficult was already damaged by the cost overrun and fighting with producer (and everyone else) on Major Dundee, which flopped the same year. Dumped from this, he was blackballed for several years. Writer Southern was busy in ’65, whipping up the crazy The Loved One and doing uncredited work on William Wyler’s intense The Collector.
This was another leg up for McQueen, sparking a run of hits that lasted for a decade. At 35, he may have been older than reality would dictate for the character (as he was in the following Nevada Smith), but his cool persona aced it.
As for the Old Master, Edward G. Robinson wrote in his autobiography: “I could hardly say I identified with Lancey; I was Lancey. That man on the screen, more than in any other picture I ever made, was Edward G. Robinson with great patches of Emanuel Goldenberg [his real name] showing through. He was all cold and discerning and unflappable on the exterior; he was aging and full of self-doubt on the inside….Even the final session of the poker game was real…I played that game as if it were for blood. It was one of the best performances I ever gave on stage or screen or radio or TV, and the reason for it is that is wasn’t a performance at all; it was symbolically the playing out of my whole gamble with life.”