While I pride myself on not betting over my head and NEVER risk more than I can afford to lose, I wound up parting with more cash than I was really happy about during a recent trip to Atlantic City. Now, I won’t harangue everyone with all the details of my poker debacle, but suffice it to state that the big hand involved another player hitting trip 8’s over my pair of aces. It was unfortunate, but not a huge deal (no pun intended). That’s poker, as they say. Anyway, it was upon reflecting on the day’s events that I again remembered that for some reason, what many folks consider the quintessential poker film, The Cincinnati Kid has always escaped my attention. Being the amateur poker player that I am, this stunning realization wasn’t sitting well with me even more than my financial loss. So, I decided that I would rectify this oversight as soon as possible.
Now, it seems that time has actually been kind to The Cincinnati Kid. Or, would it be more accurate to postulate that movie fans’ memories of the film have helped elevate it to a top-tier level over the years? Reviews during its initial release were mostly lukewarm, with most of the actors, mainly Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson and Karl Malden, reaping much of the praise. However, critics also pointed out that there was a lack of characterization, needless subplots, and that the effort paled in comparison to the far superior Paul Newman classic, The Hustler, with which the film shares many similarities and is always measured against. Years later, with poker’s increasing popularity and some reviewers growing nostalgic over The Cincinnati Kid, the release has taken on a pretense of almost superior quality. In fact, a retrospective of the movie by the New York State Writers Institute of the University at Albany even dared to declare that The Hustler was lacking in some areas when compared to The Cincinnati Kid. The bottom line is, from a gambler’s perspective, the film is incredibly entertaining but judging it from a movie fan’s point-of-view, it does leave a little to be desired.
OK, so Steve McQueen plays “The Kid,” a poker phenom who has just about mastered the game of five-card stud (a game rarely played in the present day) in New Orleans’ French Quarter and is considered by many to be the best player in the country. That is, with the exception of cagey old veteran Lancey Howard (Robinson), also known as “The Man.” When McQueen learns that Robinson is in town, he wants to get into a big game in order to take him down. However, McQueen wants everything to be on the level, but that’s going to be a tall order when the dastardly Slade (essayed brilliantly by a very young-looking Rip Torn) hears of the game. It seems that Torn has McQueen’s friend and dealer of the game, Karl Malden, in a predicament and coerces him to supply McQueen with a helping hand (or more) because Torn wants revenge on Robinson for “gutting” him in a previous game. After all the characters are introduced, it’s easy to tell that the acting is indeed the best aspect of the film pretty much from top to bottom. It’s impossible to deny the charm and cool of McQueen and he plays the unflappable poker ace to the hilt. Though, Robinson just about steals the movie from him. As the undisputed king of stud poker, Robinson shines—in a role originally intended for Spencer Tracy, and it’s actually difficult to imagine him doing a better job than Robinson—as an experienced player who treats gambling as a profession and is almost menacing in his calm confidence and self-assured detachment. Malden is great, Ann-Margret is totally fun as Malden’s malevolent wife from the wrong side of the tracks, and viewers will even be treated to a magnificent appearance from jazz legend Cab Calloway as one of the players in the big game. Obviously, a cast like that could most likely save any film from being a complete bust.
The performances aside, The Cincinnati Kid has some problems. The critics weren’t wrong. McQueen’s distraction from poker is his relationship with Tuesday Weld. While Weld looks completely stunning in the film, her romantic subplot with The Kid is definitely extraneous and generic. Compounding the problem is the fact that because this entanglement takes up a fair amount of screen time it takes away from McQueen’s character development. Sure, he’s a tremendous poker player but how did he become one? Why is he so driven to be the best? These questions are never really answered. Additionally, for a movie about poker, there’s probably not as much of the game featured in the film as many hardcore fans would want, at least there’s not enough for me. It’s understandable that the whole running time of the release can’t entirely feature poker playing, but a bit more focus on the various nuances of the game would have been beneficial. However, the poker scenes that are included are effective, and the final showdown between McQueen and Robinson is quite tense and well done, although perhaps a bit too “Hollywood,” but that’s a common and forgivable offense and I’d be remiss if I didn’t state that I at least respect and admire the ending.
In conclusion, while The Cincinnati Kid does do a decent job detailing the spirit of poker in the days before being a gambler was considered to be a reputable profession and provides a solid examination on the danger of believing in one’s own hype, the film is somewhat uneven and doesn’t quite get deep enough into the development of the plot. Furthermore, it’s also worth mentioning that renowned director Sam Peckinpah was originally tapped to take on the production but was soon let go, in favor of Norman Jewison, over creative differences. Now, Jewison is more than a capable director and he would go on to amass a sublime resume, including In The Heat Of The Night, Fiddler On The Roof, …And Justice For All, The Hurricane and many others, and The Cincinnati Kid was an important film for him. However, I honestly think I much rather would have seen the Peckinpah version, even though I’ll concede that shooting a poker movie on black-and-white film isn’t a good idea. So, as an amateur poker player I’ll give the film three and a half stars out of five, but as a movie fan I can only give it three stars. Is there any such thing as a three and one quarter stars film review?