By 1965, Steve McQueen was a star with hit films like “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape” already behind him. Yet, McQueen still had not proven he could carry a film, films where he alone was the big name. “The Honeymoon Machine,” “The War Lover” and “Hell is For Heroes” did little at the box office no matter what their quality. McQueen was still chasing the one actor who he saw as his rival, Paul Newman. With the release of “The Cincinnati Kid,” Steve would be on a cinematic roll pushing him through the stratosphere for the next few years equal to that of his screen rival.
I first saw “The Cincinnati Kid” in 1965 at a little theater in Downtown Brooklyn called the Duffield. Back in those days, this area of Brooklyn was a sort of mini Times Square with the boroughs largest and fanciest movie palaces all within walking distance. The Loew’s Metropolitan, RKO Albee, Brooklyn Fox and Brooklyn Paramount were all large grand scale theaters, each seating more than 3,000 people. The Duffield, on the other hand, was a small theater, approximately 900 seats, located on a side street (Duffield Street) just off Fulton Street, the main thoroughfare. McQueen was cool, as Eric Stoner, aka The Cincinnati Kid, his screen persona in full bloom. He had the walk and the look. He doesn’t talk too much but McQueen was always at his best when playing the silent type, it was all in his face and his body language. In truth, I was always more of a Paul Newman fan, but in this film McQueen was it, total sixties cool.
A second attraction for me at the time was his female co-star, a young and vivacious Ann-Margret. As Melba, the slutty young wife of Shooter (Karl Malden), a friend of the Kid’s and another big time poker player, Ann-Margret made an impressionable appearance the first time she appears on screen. In a sexy low cut slip, we see her lying on a bed putting together a jigsaw puzzle, a game at which she cheats by filing down or cutting pieces of each puzzle piece so they will fit into the empty spaces. The scene tells you all you need to known about Melba.
Based on a novel by Richard Jessup, with a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern, (1) “The Cincinnati Kid” details the story of Eric Stoner’s (McQueen) pursuit to play high stakes poker with Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson), aka “The Man.” Like Minnesota Fats in Robert Rossen’s excellent film, “The Hustler,” Lancey is the best, the top dog who the hotshot Kid wants to dethrone. The Kid wants Shooter to arrange a game between him and The Man.
The location is New Orleans, originally set in St. Louis in the novel, during the Depression which is nicely captured by the filmmakers in the outdoor scenes though overall, the art direction is unconvincing. When Lancey arrives in town, it is arranged by Shooter for Lancey to play a high stake game with William Jefferson Slade (Rip Torn), a wealthy white southerner with obvious local connections along with an itch for gambling and women, other than his wife. The game is set up and Slade is soon “gutted” for $6,000 by Lancey in a marathon poker session. His pride wounded, as well as his pocket, Slade wants Shooter, as the dealer in the big game, to “assist” the Kid in his match up with Lancey by slipping the Kid some helpful cards. Shooter, who has built up a reputation, over many years for his honesty at first refuses but with $12,000 in markers and some dark secrets about Melba, Shooters wife, Slade threatens to reveal, Shooter agrees. When the Kid finds out about the setup, he wants nothing to do with it. He wants to beat Lancey fair and square.
The Kid is in a non-committed relationship with Christian (Tuesday Weld). She wants something more permanent, The Kid wants to gamble. She finally decides to go back home to Mom and Dad, tired of playing second fiddle to poker and his pursuit to be the best. The Kid licks his wounds with the seductive Melba.
However, this is all foreplay for the final marathon game that is the centerpiece of the film. One would think that watching a poker game would not be very exciting but thanks to the editing by Jewison and future director Hal Ashby, the game comes off with a feeling of tenseness and a sense of credibility, though I have to admit I know very little about poker. If a game could actually play out as it does, I cannot say. I’m not sure it really matters.
Ever since its release, the film has always been compared to “The Hustler,” and generally to its detriment. I have to agree. Rossen’s film has a grittier realism, a stronger script, to it that is lacking here. The characters are also better defined, and while McQueen is in his full laid back cool mode, Newman just rips the screen apart in a fantastic performance that just burst off screen. “The Hustler” moved Newman up from movie star to superstar status. “The Cincinnati Kid” is a good film with solid points in its favor however, while enjoyable, it does not achieve greatness.
What are the good points? Well, McQueen’s subtle low key performance for one. With McQueen, less is more. He is generally less effective in films with talky scripts. You can read McQueen visually. Even more enjoyable is Joan Blondell as Lady Fingers, one of two dealers in the big game, who makes a grand entrance into the film and proves she can still deliver some of the sassiest of lines with plenty of style. Edward G. Robinson as Lancey, “The Man” Howard (1), who may just give the best performance in the film, is gentlemanly but tough as the kingpin stud poker player. Robinson and Blondell, both contract players during the golden days of Warner Brothers, reunited here for the first time since the 1936 gangster film, “Bullets or Ballots,” still revealing the same stylish rapport they displayed some thirty years earlier. Sadly, there were some scenes between these two memorable stars, director Norman Jewison and editor, Hal Ashby cut due to a long running time. From my own point of view, they should have cut a nasty cockfight scene and left in the banter between these two timeless veterans. The New Orleans Jazz sound also adds a nice favor to it all. Other cast members adding a nice touch include Cab Calloway, Jack Weston, Jeff Corey and character actor Dub Taylor (“Bonnie and Clyde”, “The Wild Bunch” and hundreds of TV Shows).
The comparison between Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson and McQueen’s Kid is interesting. They both know they are good, more than good, they great at their respective games, but Eddie is a hot shot braggart fortified by that sly Newman grin and penetrating eyes. Eddie’s good, he knows, he lets you know it, and Newman plays it that way. The Kid, like Eddie, wants to beat the top dog in his field but it is all inner tenseness and turmoil. He is itching to play The Man and is sure he can win but there is no bragging, no show off of style or of being a smart aleck, he just wants to play Lancey, beat him and become The Man. Both films question the importance of winning in one’s life, the sacrifices one makes. Both men find some kind of redemption in losing. Fast Eddie does beat Minnesota Fats in the end but is barred from ever playing big time pool again by gambler and underworld thug Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) yet this gives him the freedom to escape from under Gordon’s thumb. He wins the game, loses the ability to play for big money but becomes his own man. For The Kid, losing to The Man frees him to go back to Christian and find out what is really important in life.
The original director of the film was the notoriously wild and talented Sam Peckinpah, who in 1964, when the film was in production, was best known for his TV work in “The Rifleman” and two low budget westerns, “The Deadly Companions” and “Ride the High Country,” from 1961 and 1962, respectively. Peckinpah did not last long. He hired hundreds of extras to film a riot scene that was not even in the script, and additionally filmed an unauthorized nude scene between Rip Torn and a black actress. Production was quickly shut down and Peckinpah was let go. Before he was fired though, Peckinpah himself fired a young unknown actress by the name of Sharon Tate, who was chosen by producer Martin Ransohoff and McQueen for the role of The Kid’s girlfriend, Christian. She was replaced by Tuesday Weld who earlier worked with McQueen in “Soldier in the Rain”.
Ransohofff and McQueen agreed on Norman Jewison for director. At this point in his career, Jewison, was best known for Judy Garland’s comeback TV special and a series of lightweight comedies from Universal including “The Thrill of it All,” “The Art of Love” and “Send Me No Flowers.” Jewsion’s career was probably saved from frivolous film hell by this switch in directors. The production started up again, this time to be filmed in color instead of black and white as Peckinpah demanded. While black and white would have given the film some added grit, identifying the cards during crucial dramatic scenes was certainly easier in color.
The film was met with mixed reviews from the critics but was a major hit with the public. McQueen would go on make “Nevada Smith,” “The Sand Peebles,” “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Bullitt” cementing his status as one the sixties most popular stars.
(1) Paddy Chayefsky was the original screenwriter. His script was found too “wordy” and was rewritten by Lardner and Southern. Charles Eastman also worked on the script. This was Ring Lardner Jr.’s first screen credit since he was blacklisted and named as one of the Hollywood Ten.
(2) Spencer Tracy was the original choice for the role of Lancey Howard but he bowed out and was replaced by Robinson.
Photo Source: Duffield Theater – Cinema Treasures Website – This is a good representation of what the theater looked like at the time “The Cincinnati Kid” was in theaters. Based on the release of the film on the marquee (The Young Lovers) this photo was most likely taken in very late 1964 or early 1965.