Friday 30 September 2022

Movie Review: The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

A poker drama, The Cincinnati Kid mixes high-stakes card action with less impressive romantic entanglements and some muddled era representations.

In New Orleans of the 1930s, Eric "the Cincinnati Kid" Stoner (Steve McQueen) is the hottest up-and-coming poker player. His mentor and friend is the aging Shooter (Karl Malden), who is married to the much younger Melba (Ann-Margret). The Kid's girlfriend Christian (Tuesday Weld) is growing disgruntled that she does not get much of his attention.

The revered Lancey "The Man" Howard (Edward G. Robinson) arrives in town with a well-earned reputation as the best poker player alive and promptly defeats wealthy businessman Slade (Rip Torn). Next up is a much anticipated showdown between Lancey and the Kid, with Shooter and Lady Fingers (Joan Blondell) recruited as dealers. The Kid has to contend with Christian's sour attitude and Melba's unconstrained lust, while Shooter comes under pressure to influence the game's outcome.

With The Hustler swinging open the door to grim smoke-filled backroom duels, The Cincinnati Kid arrives with a similar formula of the hot young talent (McQueen) challenging the veteran reigning champion (Robinson). Writers Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern adapt the Richard Jessup novel with verve, and Norman Jewison directs with a sweaty immediacy to wring maximum tension out of men sitting around the table, encouraging McQueen and Robinson to naturally match actors with characters.

And when Jewison stays close to the poker table, the energy level buzzes. The audience is trusted to know the five card stud rules or quickly catch up, and regardless, the strategy propelled by bluffing, gamesmanship, and penetrating personality traits registers through facial expressions and body language. The showdown between Lancey and the Kid extends for several days and occupies the entire third act, and despite breaks for sleeping and eating, the pressure only builds towards the legendary final pair of hands.

The scenes without cards being dealt are comparatively limp. The Kid and Melba attend an entirely superfluous cockfight, the romance between The Kid and Christian stutters into painfully strained territory, and all three of Steve McQueen, Tuesday Weld, and Ann-Margret are dressed and styled according to 1960s fashions, despite the 1930s setting. Nothing substantive is revealed about The Kid's earlier days, and no explanation provided for the odd pairing of the vivacious Melba with boring has-been Shooter.

The dream cast makes up for plenty of deficiencies. While McQueen is adequate playing his usual nervy-cool persona, veterans Robinson and Malden provide superb senior heft, Rip Torn is suitably oily, and Joan Blondell breezes in as a dealer riding a flamboyant past. Ann-Margret (openly zesty) and Weld (quietly smoldering) embody classic opposites, while Jack Weston and Cab Calloway make up the numbers around the table with restless colour.

Although some of the cards have questionable value, The Cincinnati Kid deals from a crisp deck.

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