Following the critical and commercial disaster of Baby, The Rain Must Fall, Steve McQueen took a year off. He wanted to be a movie star appearing in good films and, for McQueen, good meant profitable. Now that he had his pick of projects, he decided to take his time and choose those which were most likely to come up to his own particular standards. After his year’s rest, which involved both representing America in the six-day motorcycle trials in East Germany and having an affair with Mamie Van Doren, McQueen returned to the screen in The Cincinnati Kid. A film born in chaos, The Cincinnati Kid looked like a disaster waiting to happen. But thanks to the grace of whichever gods smile down on movies, the film turned out to be critically acclaimed and a smash hit at the box office.
Broadly speaking, the film is to cards what The Hustler was to pool. McQueen plays Eric, the ‘Cincinnati Kid’ of the title who believes he is the king of stud poker players in New Orleans. His hubris leads him to accept a game with Lancey Howard (Robinson), a refined gentleman who has beaten the odds of poker and age to remain the best in the Southern states of America. While simultaneously romancing Christian (Weld), a naïve country girl, and fending off the rapacious attentions of Melba (Margaret), the wife of respected dealer Shooter (Malden), the Kid goes into the game with the self-belief that nothing can stop him winning. Naturally, Lancey has other ideas.
There are not many films as good as The Cincinnati Kid which have had such a difficult road to the screen. The producer, Martin Ransohoff, took an option on a successful book by Richard Jessup and hired the Oscar-winning writer Paddy Chayefsky to produce a screenplay. But Chayefsky’s script turned out to be rich in character and setting and somewhat lacking in suspense. So Ransohoff junked his screenplay and turned instead to veteran writer Ring Lardner Jr, whose screenplay was more to the producer’s liking. Following a polish by Terry Southern, the script was given to Sam Peckinpah to direct. Peckinpah had just been barred from Columbia following their decision to take Major Dundee away from him but was taken in by MGM with the offer of a multi-picture deal. However, director and producer did not see eye to eye. Peckinpah didn’t like the script and insisted on tinkering with it. He demanded that the film be shot in black and white. He then complained about the casting of Ann-Margaret and Sharon Tate in the leading female roles. Ransohoff was unhappy about all of these but he caved in on the first two and compromised on the last, agreeing to replace Tate with Tuesday Weld but refusing to change his mind on Ann-Margaret. Relations began to break down and Ransohoff spent as much time as he could away from Peckinpah, leaving his deputy John Calley to oversee production. On Thursday December 4th 1964, Peckinpah shot a scene involving Rip Torn – playing Slade, a millionaire gambler – lying in bed with a naked black actress. The director was pleased with the scene but Calley was astonished and reported back to Ransohoff that Peckinpah was “screwing around” with what he was shooting. On December 5th, Peckinpah shot a chase scene and insisted on staging a riot in the background which featured 200 extras. The following Monday, Ransohoff returned from Northern California, where he was sitting in on Vincente Minnelli’s shoot of The Sandpiper, took one look at the footage and shut the film down. Peckinpah was fired, Ransohoff went to the press and buried Peckinpah’s reputation, and, a couple of weeks later, Norman Jewison took over.
I relate the above because it’s a good story and as revealing a portrait of Hollywood in the death throes of the studio system as you’ll find. This was a few years before the rise of the director as king when producers like Martin Ransohoff still held all the cards and a maverick like Peckinpah could be shafted all the way into unemployment. What’s unforgivable is that Ransohoff’s squealing to the press led to Peckinpah being persona non grata in Hollywood for three years. What’s remarkable is that The Cincinnati Kid turned out to be such a good film. It’s got flaws certainly. For one thing, the period is weirdly dislocated. Some details suggest that the film is set during the Depression but many of the clothes and hairstyles indicate the 1960s. For another, the romance between the Kid and Christian is pure moonshine, never properly developed and, more importantly, it takes up valuable time between poker games. There’s a scene when he visits her poor-but-honest parents which offers a vision of Depression-era puritan simplicity that must have seemed like a cliché during the 1960s and looks fatally antiquated now. It also has to be said that the tension assumes a knowledge of the rules of poker which may render the film baffling to some viewers.
However, none of these are too important because the virtues of the film outweigh its flaws. Norman Jewison’s career was re-vitalised by this movie and quite rightly so because it’s a vast improvement on the embarrassing comedies he was making during the first half of the decade. With a lot of help form his editor Hal Ashby, he keeps the pace fast, ratchets up the suspense and keeps the stylistics for when they really make an impact – there’s a flashily edited series of close-ups towards the end when the winning card is turned that I absolutely adore. He also creates a comic spin, helped by acerbic dialogue that is obviously the work of Terry Southern, that keeps you smiling and which only falters in the romantic scenes between the Kid and Christian. Jewison’s biggest talent, one which he has demonstrated time and again throughout his long career, is his ability to work well with good actors and get them to raise their game when in competition with each other. This is particularly evident here with Karl Malden, an actor who tended to fall into comfortable mannerisms far too often but turns Shooter into a memorably pathetic fall-guy, his wised-up manner concealing a mess of a life. There are equally impressive turns from Rip Torn, already oozing duplicity simply by walking into a room, a hilariously sassy Joan Blondell and card-sharps Jack Weston – who memorably appeared in Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair - and Cab Calloway. Ann-Margaret is surprisingly entertaining as Shooter’s insatiable wife and she makes up for Tuesday Weld’s infuriating blandness.
Pride of place, however, goes to the two leads. Steve McQueen is effortlessly watchable as the Kid, providing a masterclass in the power of natural screen presence over dialogue. He doesn’t mind that the Kid isn’t entirely sympathetic and makes the most of his arrogance and self-belief. On this occasion, though, he is up against another master of film acting and he holds his own but it’s a close-run thing. Edward G. Robinson was ageing and ill when he made this film but he’s simply fantastic as the most elegant gambler this side of Monte Carlo. Every gesture is carefully weighted, every look loaded with meaning. It’s a wonderful performance and one of this great actor’s best. He never gives into the temptation to ham it up or go for cheap effects and this makes the final confrontation between the two gamblers all the more tense – neither player gives much away and both know the importance of keeping power in reserve. If any young would-be actors want to know what screen presence means and how important it is to a movie star then they could do a lot worse than study the last twenty minutes of this film very carefully indeed.
Only available as part of Warners’ Steve McQueen boxset, The Cincinnati Kid looks very good indeed on DVD.
It’s presented in its original 1.85:1 ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The print used is a good one with very little damage apart from some scratches occasionally and a bit of artifacting here and there. The colours are a stand-out, Jewison’s muted palate and occasional shocking reds coming over very well. The soundtrack is the original English mono track and it sounds absolutely fine.
The main extra is a full-length commentary from Norman Jewison. I enjoyed listening to this as Jewison is eloquent, funny and full of interesting stories. There’s also a sporadic scene-specific commentary from Phil Gordon and Dave Foley who host an American show called “Celebrity Poker Showdown”. This is quite interesting for anyone who doesn’t know much about the rules of poker and it elucidated some scenes in the film for me. We also get the theatrical trailer which is too explicit and shouldn’t be watched before you see the film.
The film has optional subtitles but the commentaries are not subtitled.
The Cincinnati Kid isn’t seen as often as it should be now and it seems to have less of a reputation than The Hustler, which is quite a similar film. I certainly recommend it, not least as a lesson in great screen acting. The DVD presents the film well and is well worth a look.
Mike Sutton reviews "The Cincinnati Kid", a very entertaining entry in Warners' Steve McQueen boxset.