The opening images of The Cincinnati Kid are nearly inexplicable but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun. Steve McQueen brushes past a funeral procession of African-Americans complete with a groovin’ brass band. Then there’s a bit of a needless opening gambit where he’s tossing pennies with a precocious shoeshine boy. If the sequence serves a purpose it’s to indicate the world we find ourselves in — New Orleans during the Depression — and it also says something about our protagonist: He’s a winner.
This was Norman Jewison’s first promising picture to follow up a trio of frothy 60s comedies. As far as star power goes, he couldn’t do much better than Steve McQueen as the up-and-coming “Kid” even if the established star might be a bit old for the role. He’s got the prerequisites, confidence and an emotionless poker face, making him a believable big stakes stud. In fact, he’s one of the best around.
We get our first actual taste of the Kid’s talents when he walks off with the pot after challenging a smug nobody in his bluff and flying out a window before sauntering across the nearby railroad tracks after a washroom altercation. Steve McQueen takes it all in cool breezy stride like he does it every day. In truth, he had an action scene written into his contract for every picture and so the film gets the obligation out of the way early.
Afterward, it settles into its happy equilibrium. Edward G. Robinson is stately with beard and silver hair as Mr. Howard, the veteran of the poker-playing world who has seen a great deal and has remained the best of the best even after all these years. It’s all but inevitable The Kid will have to face him. There is no glory, no true ascension to the top of the pantheon of the greats if he cannot topple the old guard.
The Kid has a girl (Tuesday Weld) who he’s intent to keep around even as she goes back to her hometown for some space. He’s not much for talk and that serves McQueen as an actor just fine, but he does show her that she still means something to him.
Meanwhile, his buddy Shooter (Karl Malden) lines up a date with The Man himself, Lancey Howard. Though I love Malden to death as an actor, he seems slightly miscast as the veteran card sharp. His wife is another story entirely. We meet Melda (Ann-Margret) as she cuts puzzle pieces to size when they don’t fit together. She cheats at everything. Ann-Margret proves as frisky as a calico cat and provocative as ever; the fire blazes between her and Steve McQueen and never stops burning. The camera seems to love them both. But Melda’s overt advances and The Kid’s passive acceptance do have repercussions. It never reaches the notes of melodrama but it’s no question that feelings are hurt and relations are strained.
What the Cincinnati Kid can’t put out as far as substance, it more than makes up for with an abundance of stylized cool instigated by McQueen. It is rendered through a Depression-era palette by way of the 60s, coquettish dames, and a stunning range of impressive personalities, including a boisterous Joan Blondell, who all help fill out the hazy backroom poker joints.
The steely, unblinking eyes of McQueen are made for the poker table. Then again, the same might be said of Robinson, his face never flinching or wavering, with an air of disinterest to match The Kid’s quiet confidence. They’re two sides of the same deck, both winners.
The last 40 odd minutes or so are admittedly stagnant though having McQueen and Robinson around a table together actually does have the pretense of drama thanks to the stakes and the characters that have been brought to the fore.
It’s hardly an expositional movie but we know the archetypes. The young buck out to prove he can be the best. The old white wizard who’s looking to prove he’s not quite ready to call it quits as he attempts to go out on his own terms. Likewise, we have cocky card players who get taken to the cleaners and card dealers who’ve been around but that can’t always keep them out of a bind.
The film benefits by downplaying most of its dialogue-heavy scenes for the more cinematic moments, which essentially get carried by the faces of McQueen and Robinson alone with a room full of hushed onlookers. McQueen was by pedigree an action star and he reveled in those environments but there’s no question he has a certain mettle that makes his battle going toe-to-toe with Robinson equally compelling. And of course, the older man still carries his same self-assured confidence even if his days of being a Warner Bros. gangster have long since passed. It makes The Cincinnati Kid a cinch to be a winner no matter the outcome.
It’s true the picture went through substantial personnel changes including Spencer Tracy dropping out due to his failing health and Sam Peckinpah was also fired as director paving the way for Jewison. Tuesday Weld also ended up in the project instead of Sharon Tate. She’s a meeker performer but perhaps it works better in contrast with Margret’s character because even though they are friends, they also serve as obvious foils for the Kid’s affections.
Watching the beats the story goes through, one cannot help but think we already have The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman playing much the same role facing off against Jackie Gleason in what proves to be a stellar black and white classic. While that doesn’t nullify The Cincinnati Kid, it does feel like a similar framework. Thankfully, it still manages to be delectable entertainment in its own right. The closing credits are sung by none other than Ray Charles and a relatively downbeat ending, ironically, provides a breath of fresh air.