The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
Written by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern
Directed by Norman Jewison
Norman Jewison was not the first director to work on this production. Edward G. Robinson wasn’t the first choice for the main antagonist either. But through a series of circumstances & disagreements during filming, the film changed and became something else. Sam Peckinpah was the first director in charge of The Cincinnati Kid. Apparently, the producers believe Peckinpah “vulgarized” the film and fired him after a few days of shooting. Spencer Tracey had pulled out due to poor health, and Robinson stepped in. Peckinpah had planned to shoot the picture in black & white due to its Depression setting. That was changed to color when Jewison was brought on board. Would the Peckinpah version have been better? We’ll never really know but what we did end up with was a very enjoyable movie about poker.
Eric Stoner (Steve McQueen) is an up-and-coming poker player in New Orleans during the Great Depression. A poker veteran named Lancey Howard (Robinson) is coming into town, and Eric sees this as a chance to make a name for himself. Eric’s mentor & friend Shooter (Karl Malden) warns the young man, telling him how Lancey was the man that ruined Shooter’s chances at the big time. Another New Orleans aristocrat, Slade (Rip Torn), is humiliated by Lancey in a game and pressures Shooter into cheating, so Eric wins, and Lancey will be humiliated. Meanwhile, Eric is conflicted about where he wants this relationship with Christian (Tuesday Weld) to go, unsure if he can commit. Shooter’s wife Melba (Ann-Margret) seduces Eric with plans of cuckolding Shooter over the situation.
The Cincinnati Kid is a very well-paced & shot picture. I don’t think Jewison does anything revolutionary here, but he does get fantastic performances out of every actor. The plot is pretty standard, but the big finale poker game did surprise me, and I think it makes the ending all the better for it. I am always impressed when a director can take an activity that is not naturally boiling over with tension, like poker, and find ways to film and tell the story of a game that puts you on the edge of your seat. Jewison makes some smart decisions in the editing rooming alongside his editor Hal Ashby. This was Ashby’s second film as an editor, and he would cut the following three Jewison films. Jewison encouraged Ashby to go into directing, a decision that netted some of the best American films ever made.
There is a reasonable amount of time spent on Eric and Christian’s relationship, allowing us to see their chemistry together and move through the ebb & flow. I do think the third act rushes some things about them quite a bit. The Melba element makes things feel muddled, and I wish the picture had been a little clearer about where things stood with Christian. Jewison’s original ending did not include her presence in the last scene. Instead, he wanted to revisit the young shoeshine boy that keeps wanting to play pigeon toss with Eric. That moment is heavy with the theme of the film, bringing us full circle. I understand why bringing Christian in at the end works to an extent, but Eric alone at that moment has more emotional resonance to it, in my opinion.
I’m so used to seeing Edward G. Robinson as a smarmy villain (see Key Largo), but he gives a much more nuanced character here. He’s not out to ruin Eric, but Lancey has a reputation to uphold. He has a history with these people and this game. Lancey isn’t interested in being washed up yet, and he plays poker like that. We don’t get a ton of insight into Lancey’s inner life, but enough of his personality is communicated that the audience understands his motivations & goals. The same is true about Christian, Melba, and the other supporting characters. Rip Torn is the most antagonistic character and is incredibly rotten. I don’t think I’d ever seen him play a villain before, and he is perfect in the role. The Cincinnati Kid is an enjoyable, light movie. The characters are rich enough that you’ll quickly become engrossed in the film. Jewison has made a very snappy film that is both of its time but doesn’t feel dated. The casting here is immaculate and pays off in dividends.