This Week in Steve McQueen: The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

First off,  let me say I thought this movie was filmed beautifully.  I was immediately struck by both the colors and the camera work — angles, people in foreground versus background, stuff like that.  Brilliantly done, in that regard.  After I saw it last week in the Steve McQueen film festival I’ve been going to lately, I looked up a few things about it and was surprised to find that the original director, Sam Peckinpah, had been planning to shoot the film in black and white.  I think that would’ve been a mistake.  It would’ve fit the time period much better, sure, but for a movie about the red and the black of poker, having the colors of the cards pop the way they did — and somehow, they really did POP — felt like a mandatory effect to me.

That said, I can’t help but wonder if this film would’ve been ten times more interesting with a man like Sam at the helm.  One of the reasons he got canned, in fact, was because he was trying to “vulgarize” the script, according to the producer.  Well, no offense, Mr. Producer Man, but this movie could’ve used a little vulgarity.  Or at least a little spicing up.  Because otherwise?  Propped up next to other movies of its ilk, it just fell flat and dull, dull, dull.

See, the story is one we’ve just seen too many times done so much better.  It’s the tale of a spunky young gambler, Eric “The Kid” Stoner (McQueen), who finds himself face-to-face with the most famously successful pro-player in the history of stud poker, Lancey “The Master” Howard (Edward G. Robinson).  After some caution from his friend and dealer Shooter (Karl Malden, who I loved in this, incidentally), The Kid decides to take the risk and jump into Howard’s big game.  Also joining the game is the rich, arrogant William Jefferson Slade (Rip Torn), who hires Shooter to deal the game and then tries to bribe him into helping him cheat.  When Shooter refuses, Slade calls in thousands of dollars in markers owed to him by Shooter and also threatens to expose a secret about Shooter’s wife Melba (the way, WAY overacting Ann Margret).  Commence much wringing of hands, as Shooter is faced with having to choose between his honor as a straight dealer and his honor as a husband.

That conflict sounds more interesting than it actually is, I’m afraid.

The big game finally comes and we watch the various participants struggle with their ever-shifting roles in this massive spectrum of personal relationships, professional honor, and greed.   But what could’ve been complexity and drama ending up feeling more like, well, like watching poker on ESPN.  There was a game.  Some guys yelled at some other guys.  Somebody won, somebody lost, the end.

This isn’t a BAD film.  It just lacks in oomph somehow.   And while it may have lacked in even more oomph had it been filmed in black and white as Peckinpah originally wanted, I think his proposed script changes probably could’ve pulled  this film out of its stupor.

Alas.  Win some, lose some, eh, Kid?

Definitely worth a rental for steadfast McQueen fans, and also for fans of either Malden or Robinson, who were great in this.  But for the casual McQueen liker, it’s probably one you could pass up.

Up next week, Nevada Smith!  Stay tuned!

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Drama
Cast:  Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Ann Margret, Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld


2 Responses to “This Week in Steve McQueen: The Cincinnati Kid (1965)”

  1. Liz Says:

    LOL – Poker on ESPN! My husband watches that, and when I start complaining, he starts making fun of my figure skating! He says it’s not a sport and I say neither is poker – and they’re both on ESPN!

    Heck, I’m so clueless, I thought “The Cincinatti Kid” was about pool!

  2. megwood Says:

    That’s The Hustler! And the reason you confused them is because they are, in fact, pretty much the same film. Except The Hustler is about a thousand times sharper.

    OMG, poker on TV might actually be the most boringest thing of all time. I’d rather watch them play Go Fish, frankly. At least then there’s some authentic excitement whenever someone finally has all the 8’s you needed, right?

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