Movie review: ‘The Cincinnati Kid’

I don’t know why, but the more old movies I re-watch, the more I ruminate on how many of them have much deeper and more creative plots, better acting and are the true definition of cinema than much of the crap being shoveled out today. So, today, I’m taking a look at “The Cincinnati Kid” with Steve McQueen. Although a movie about poker, the entire thing is character and emotion driven. No CGI. No big stunt scenes. Just great acting from an A-list cast from stars of the day to emerging stars of the day to a screen legend named Edward G. Robinson in the twilight of his career. If you haven’t seen “The Cincinnati Kid,” then watch it as soon as possible. It’s easy to find and it comes around the movie channels on occasion.

‘The Cincinnati Kid’
(1965; 102 minutes; rated R; directed by Norman Jewison and starring Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Ann-Margaret, Tuesday Weld and Karl Malden)

A POKER MOVIE THAT’S DEFINED BY ITS ACTING

Gambling, like war, is a staple of Hollywood, from classics such as “The Hustler” about pool sharks from 1961 with Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman or its sequel “The Color of Money” with Newman and Tom Cruise or the poker cult fave “Rounders” (click here for my review). However, before “Rounders” as a poker movie with a great story and outstanding acting to showcase the card sharps, there was Steve McQueen in “The Cincinnati Kid” with an even better story and slightly better acting from the entire cast.

(CLICK HERE FOR ALL MY MOVIE REVIEWS)

The Cincinnati Kid” not only has McQueen, but it has emerging stars such as Rip Torn, Karl Malden and Ann-Margaret as well as an acting legend in Edward G. Robinson and such veteran actors as Joan Blondell, who wound up with a Golden Globe nomination for her work as “Lady Fingers.” It even has legendary musician Cab Calloway as one of the players in the big game.

The best thing?

The entire cast gives sensational performances in what’s now a classic motion picture that stands far above 999 out of every 1,000 movies released today. Unfortunately, “The Cincinnati Kid” was only nominated for that one Golden Globe and so 1965 was a year with great films and tough competition because American cinema simply doesn’t get much better than this one.

One puzzling note is that legendary director Sam Peckinpah was originally set to be behind the camera, but he was replaced by Norman Jewison. Peckinpah? In this film? It simply doesn’t appear to be in his wheelhouse.

Now, back to what you see and not what you didn’t see …

In short, the story revolves around McQueen as “Eric ‘The Kid’ Stoner,” who’s just about the best stud poker player in New Orleans – or just about anywhere he takes his game. He’s looking to go up against “The Man,” who is “Lancey Howard” and played to straightforward perfection by Robinson. Of course, the two lock horns in the big game and … well, I’m not gonna spoil it for you.

What impresses me the most each time I re-watch “The Cincinnati Kid” is how much emotion can be conveyed by each and every one of the actors. Even the young man who pitches pennies against McQueen throughout the film does a great job conveying his character – and he’s uncredited, as are more than 50 other actors in bit parts. By today’s standards, all, even the 50 plus, are Oscar-worthy. By the standards of “The Cincinnati Kid,” today’s actors need to go back to acting school or learn a trade.

I’m not going to write any more about the plot other than to say that it is simple and direct, and you can guess every turn (and turn of the cards), but it is done so well that there’s no other way than to enjoy it.

Here’s a look at some of the wonderful cast:

  • An Oscar nominee and two-time Golden Globe winner, McQueen pretty much plays McQueen here. He does his character “The Kid” much in the same way has his work in “The Great Escape” (click here for my review) or “Bullitt” (click here for my review), but doesn’t manage to top his best work ever: As the co-star with Ali MacGraw in Peckinpah’s “The Getaway” (click here for my review). McQueen commands your attention with every line, every look and every turn of the cards. He wasn’t nominated for any major award for “The Cincinnati Kid” but did receive four other nominations for Globes. His Oscar and one Globe nomination was for “The Sand Pebbles.” McQueen could never reach the acting heights of, say, Gene Hackman, but he was a top-notch leading man and quite worthy movie legend. He died at the young(ish) age of 50 in 1980 of a heart attack in Mexico following cancer surgery.
  • An Oscar winner and nominee (not for this one), Karl Malden is “Shooter” and he has so many irons into so many fires that you need a pad and a pen to keep up. Malden is simply smooth and convincing in conveying the emotional roller coaster named “Shooter.” He’s up, he’s down and … well, it’s Malden at his best. Malden won his Oscar and got his nomination for the Hollywood classics “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront” (both with Brando). He was also terrific as the foil to George C. Scott in “Patton.” Malden died at 97 in 2009.
  • Robinson, who surprisingly never won nor was nominated for an Oscar, is simply understated perfection in this one. He immersed himself in his character and it shows. Robinson’s every move, line of dialogue or even a glance is “The Man.” The only other role I saw Robinson in was for the sci-fi classic “Soylent Green” from several years after “The Cincinnati Kid” and he was no where as good as he is here. Robinson was in the classics “Little Caesar,” “Key Largo” and “Double Indemnity.” He died eight years after “The Cincinnati Kid” at 79 in 1973 of cancer.
  • An Oscar nominee (not for this one), Tuesday Weld plays McQueen’s lover “Christian Rudd.” I hate to identify any weak link in this cast, but Weld delivers the least passionate work. I guess that’s just the product of the screenplay and how the director wanted to see her character, but her work just doesn’t stand up as tall as the others’ efforts. Weld was nominated for “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” and was better in both “Thief” with James Caan and “Falling Down,” which is the violent effort starring Michael Douglas as a disgruntled white-collar worker who has been fired from his job.
  • A two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one), Ann-Margaret plays “Melba” and she’s Malden’s wife and has the hots for McQueen. Ann-Margaret was perfectly cast for a character with smoldering desires. She does a sensational job and you’ll put it near to the top of the list of her accomplishments. She was nominated for “Carnal Knowledge” and “Tommy” and she’s been a five-time winner and five-time nominee of Golden Globes for a variety of roles in both film and on TV. I have to say I liked her almost as much in “Grumpy Old Men” as in “The Cincinnati Kid.”
  • An Oscar nominee (not for this one), Torn is as stolid here as he was in “Men in Black,” but he has a much edgier cruel streak here. Torn is a very underappreciated actor and he is in competition as the best actor in this one. Torn was nominated for “Cross Creek” and is another prolific actor with nearly 200 acting credits in film and on TV. I liked him in a small role in “Down Periscope” with Kelsey Grammer (click here for my review).
  • Blondell, like Robinson, just oozes her character. She is “Lady Fingers,” who is brought in to deal the cards in the big game. Blondell, who had a prolific career over five decades beginning in 1930, is solid in each of her scenes without trying to overpower whichever bigger character is with her. Also like Robinson, I haven’t seen much of her work, but she notched 162 acting credits before her death at 73 in 1979 of leukemia. More modern audiences remember her as “Vi” in the “Grease” film (click here for my review) and she has dozens of credits from TV, too.
  • Calloway has a small role and he delivers with a professionalism that belies his background in music and not acting. Calloway shows in this one that he knows how to play to the camera without coming off badly. You’ll probably remember him from his work with Beluish-Aykroyd in “The Blues Brothers.” While he had 25 acting credits in his career, he had more than three times more for his music on soundtracks. Calloway died at 86 in 1994 of complications following a stroke.
  • Finally, I’ll write a little about Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Jack Weston. He plays “Pig” and he’s a player in the big game – and he sweats! Just like his castmates, Weston comes alive with his work on this one. Although I’d say “The Cincinnati Kid” is one of his best, I liked him better in “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” with Don Knotts. He was nominated for “The Ritz” and was in “Dirty Dancing” and the original “The Thomas Crown Affair” with McQueen. Weston died at 71 in 1996 of lymphoma.

Of course, there are others in the expansive cast who do great work, such as Milton Selzer as “Sokal,” but I’m not spending any more time on this one.

Surprisingly because of McQueen and the rest of the cast, “The Cincinnati Kid” was outside the top 10 films of 1965, according to Wiki. So, what did it take to beat out this great movie? No. 1 was “The Sound of Music” with $138.7 million and No. 2 was “Doctor Zhivago” with approximately $111 million (an actual total, according to Wiki, cannot be accurately determined). At No. 3 is one of my favorite “James Bond” flicks – “Thunderball” (click here for my review) with $63.5 million. The No. 10 film was the great war flick “Von Ryan’s Express” with Frank Sinatra and it earned $17.1 million. I simply cannot pin down what made the box office (Wiki notes $7 million in rentals, of all things). Here are the other films from 1965 that I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Spencer Tracy was originally cast in the role ultimately played by Edward G. Robinson. Tracy was not able to do the film because of his health.
  • Peckinpah had Sharon Tate in the film, but she was replaced with Tuesday Weld when he was fired. Of course, Tate was one of the victims of Charles Manson’s followers at 26 in 1969.
  • Mitzi Gaynor was rumored to have campaigned to be “Lady Fingers,” but Blondell got the part and that was rumored to be because Ann-Margaret and Gaynor did not get along.
  • The cockfight scene was cut by censors for release in Britain.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Edward G. Robinson wrote in his autobiography, ‘In the film I played Lancey Howard, the reigning champ of the stud poker tables…I could hardly say I identified with Lancey; I was Lancey. That man on the screen, more than in any other picture I ever made, was Edward G. Robinson with great patches of Emanuel Goldenberg [his real name] showing through. He was all cold and discerning and unflappable on the exterior; he was ageing and full of self-doubt on the inside … Even the final session of the poker game was real … I played that game as if it were for blood. It was one of the best performances I ever gave on stage or screen or radio or TV, and the reason for it is that is wasn’t a performance at all; it was symbolically the playing out of my whole gamble with life.’”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2018.
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