Friday, September 29, 2023

Dealing with The Cincinnati Kid

 Last spring I was honored to appear on Kelsy Norman’s podcast, Speeding Bullitt, which deals with all things Steve McQueen. Though  I don’t pretend to be a McQueen expert, I was invited to speak about my book on The Graduate, because of Steve McQueen’s unlikely reaction to seeing Dustin Hoffman catapulted into stardom via his hang-dog portrayal of Benjamin Braddock. (Five years later McQueen and Hoffman starred together in Papillon. It was not a match made in heaven.)   

 Like the rest of the world, I’ve seen a fair share of Steve McQueen films, including The Magnificent Seven, The Thomas Crown Affair, and of course Bullitt. But I’d never seen The Cincinnati Kid (1965) until yesterday, when I plucked a DVD off a library shelf. No motorcycles here, but otherwise it contains a fair sampling of what McQueen is all about: stoicism, machismo, a glint of humor, a fierce determination to come out on top. And, underneath, a small hint of potential for tenderness.   

 The Cincinnati Kid is about high-stakes poker players trying to best one another in New Orleans. I’ve seen the film compared to The Hustler (1961) if you swap McQueen for Paul Newman and a desk of Bicycle cards for a pool cue. I’m hardly a poker player, and can’t tell a full house from a straight flush, so it was hardly easy for me to appreciate the subtleties of the on-screen game. But what really set my mind buzzing was the film’s supporting cast, which seemed to encompass the whole history of Hollywood.

 In The Cincinnati Kid (with McQueen of course playing the title role), the kid’s #1 card-playing nemesis is Lancey “The Man” Howard, played with panache by none other than Edward G. Robinson. Robinson, who’d starred as a Capone-like crime boss in Little Caesar back in 1931, was then 72, near the end of a long and distinguished career. (His last film was Soylent Green, filmed just before he died in 1973). I won’t soon forget Robinson’s dignity as well as the deep, resonant voice he brought to this film. Caught somewhere in the middle is another card player, Shooter, played by the great character actor, Karl Malden. Malden had won a Supporting Actor Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire and was nominated for another for On the Waterfront.

 Among the additional players at the table during the Big Game are Jack Weston as Pig, Cab Calloway as Yeller, and Jeff Corey as Hoban. Weston is a familiar face, a specialist in playing nebbish-y roles. Calloway, mostly known as a singer and band-leader, once ruled the airwaves with his “Minnie the Moocher,” though he doesn’t sing here. Corey, blacklisted during the HUAC years, was later famous throughout Hollywood as an acting coach whose students included some of the industry’s biggest names. And the sinister card shark determined to take down his rivals by any means necessary was portrayed by one of Hollywood’s most sinister bad guys, Rip Torn.

 Then there are the women. Pretty blonde Tuesday Weld was about 22, near the beginning of an up-and-down career, when she played the Kid’s main squeeze, the loving and innocent Christian. Ann-Margret, not long after her breakout role in Bye Bye Birdie (1963) but long before her Oscar-nominated performance in Carnal Knowledge (1971) is the sultry, dangerous Melba, a vamp if there ever was one. But for me one big thrill was the presence of former-cutie Joan Blondell, who’d made her screen debut back in 1930. Her part isn’t large, but as a dealer nicknamed Lady Fingers she’s a pleasure to watch flipping those cards.




  1. If you're a poker player, it's delightful, likely only outranked by ROUNDERS among films about the game. To me, it's even better than ROUNDERS, although there are a few eye rollers: i.e. Shooter declares "no string bets" at the start of the game, and then we see a string bet in damn near every hand after that. Great film though, one of McQueen's very best.

  2. Hi Hal, thanks for weighing in. I had to look up what a "string bet" is -- as you can see, poker is NOT my game. Bananagrams, maybe? Anyway, I hope you'll visit Movieland again.