The young, cocky up and comer, going for one big win against the old guard is almost its own genre. Paul Newman did it in 1967 as a pool hall grifter in The Hustler as Fast Eddie Felson. Then backed up again 25 years later, reprising the Felson role for The Color of Money. Matt Damon did it at the poker table with Rounders in 1998. And I’m sure there are dozens I haven’t seen, or just forgotten. It’s a tried and true plot formula that lets you put the charisma filled star of the day in the lead role, then let the seedy, yet enviable cool of the not-quite legit world deliver a seedy, yet enviably cool story. Two years before Newman tore up the felt against Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, Steve McQueen did it poker style, in The Cincinnati Kid.
The titular Kid, McQueen is on a winning streak and can’t be beaten. Whether it’s high stakes cards with the city’s most ruthless gamblers, or a simple coin flip with a young boy in the street, the Cincinnati Kid can’t lose. Which means it’s time for him to go for the big one, local poker king, Edward G Robinson as Lancey Howard.
Years ago, Howard won every cent from the Kid’s mentor, Shooter (Karl Malden). As good as Shooter thinks the Kid is, he can’t help worrying that his protégé isn’t quite up to the challenge. Add to the mix (an unrecognisably young) Rip Torn as the not so honest card player Slade, and Ann-Margaret as Shooter’s girlfriend Melba, and the high stakes game that will make him or break him seems like the simplest part of the Kid’s life.
The Cincinnati Kid is an intense movie that gives itself more heft than I ever would have thought possible from a silly, poker movie. The epic encounter between the Kid and Howard takes up close to half of the movie’s running time. And even though that’s almost nothing but men playing cards across a table, it never drags or seems drawn out. We can feel the importance of every card drawn, every hand won or lost, every bluff called. Because to an extent, we’ve been through every second of it ourselves as the audience.
The credit for that has to go to director Norman Jewison. I was surprised to see his name pop up in the opening credits, because I think of as the bloke who made the epic musical Fiddler on the Roof. Or the bloke who made the melodramatic soapiness of Moonstruck. Here, Jewison really delivers on the machismo fuelled swagger of alpha male dick swinging, and makes it seem like something more legit than that description would infer.
I haven’t seen enough Steve McQueen movies. The Great Escape is one I’ve watched almost annually since I was a little kid, and I caught Bullit a few years ago. He’s amazing in both, he’s pretty great here in The Cincinnati Kid too. Which makes me assume he’d be pretty amazing in almost everything. I should really put that theory to the test and track down a few more Steve McQueen joints.