The Cincinnati Kid (1965) Directed by Norman Jewison. Steve McQueen, Ann-Margaret, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell (102 min).
A brash young gambler challenges the master to a game of five card stud. Like an old west showdown, the youngster risks all for the chance to be the best. “This is a terrific film…you’ll enjoy a hard-boiled story with great action, surprising plot twists and the honky tonk atmosphere of New Orleans in the 1930s” (The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies).
Steve McQueen had been in semi-retirement when he made a one film deal with Filmways and MGM to play a young card shark going up against a poker playing master. After The Cincinnati Kid, he would be one of the biggest stars on the planet, with five back to back hits (Nevada Smith, The Sand Pebbles, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt and The Reivers) that would make his face, and his anti-hero cool, world famous.
The Hustler, about an aging pool king and the young Turk gunning for his crown, made Paul Newman a star, and McQueen hoped this similarly plotted film would do the same for him. Like so many movies, this one had a rocky beginning. Director Sam Peckinpah began shooting in black and white for two weeks and then was fired. McQueen was supposed to sit at the card table opposite Spencer Tracy. But, when Peckinpah didn’t work out, Tracy withdrew, perhaps for health reasons. Norman Jewison was reluctant to replace another director, but he was told that Peckinpah was already gone, and decided to step in. He had a hand in the rewriting, and brought in Tuesday Weld, Jack Weston, and Cab Calloway.
McQueen was a volatile actor, but director and star got along well enough to make more than one film together. Jewison wanted to make the movie in color, so it would be easier to show the red and black suits of cards, but McQueen had his heart set on an arty black and white film, like The Hustler. Color would make it seem too much like the glossy star-studded super productions he was trying to avoid, and he began to get antsy. Jewison asked McQueen not to look at the rushes and second guess him. Karl Malden convinced him to treat it as if it was his first movie, if it was a hit, he could write his own ticket afterwards, and convinced, McQueen stayed.
Script writers cycled through. Richard Jessup, author of the novel (which had been set in St. Louis, not New Orleans) began, followed by Paddy Chayefsky. McQueen wanted a big action sequence, since that what was made him a star, which Paddy Chayefsky, an award winning veteran of what was called The Golden Age of Television wouldn’t write. After Chayefsky left, he was followed by Ring Lardner, Jr., Terry Southern and Charles Eastman. Editor Hal Ashby would win a Best Director Oscar for his later work. Set (unconvincingly, costume and make-up wise) in the Depression, the card game takes center screen, in spite of some PG hanky panky with Ann-Margaret (whom McQueen did not like) and Tuesday Weld (with whom he had an affair).
Jewison said, “The Cincinnati Kid is a very interesting film. I mean, to make a film about a card game is not easy. It’s not the most exciting action-filled image. But, as I kept telling Steve and Edward G. Robinson, this was a struggle for power between them, between the kid and the young challenger, and the weapons are cards. So what you are really trying to do is gut the other person. A card game has everything to do with winning and losing and so it becomes very dramatic” (Emery 199). The studio wanted less location shooting, which Jewison thought was intrinsic to the atmosphere of the film. He fought for creative control and final cut, and promised to bring the film in on budget, which he did. And, locked in a room filled with beeswax smoke for a month with his principal cast he became close to Robinson and others. “The Cincinnati Kid was a great experience. It was the first film that I felt that I was the filmmaker. I was involved with the writing, I was involved with the casting, and it was my film, in a way…So I realized that creative control is more important to me than money. So what I have always offered to do is make less money, but please give me total artistic control. And that was the first film I had it on, and that’s why it’s my ugly duckling. It’s one on my favorite films from the standpoint that there is a lot of me in the picture. So, that’s The Cincinnati Kid” (Emery 199-200).
Steven McQueen came from a troubled home. Deserted by his father when he was a baby, he was involved in petty crime and gang fights as a youth and spent time in a reformatory before joining the merchant marine, and then the United States Marine Corps. He worked drifter’s jobs, lumberjack, oil field worker, carnival barker, longshoreman, bartender, salesman. After leaving the service, he ended up in Greenwich Village, the bohemian atmosphere suited him. A girl he was dating suggested he try acting, and he realized the GI Bill would pay for acting school. There were lots of pretty, sexually liberated young actresses around, and he ended up at the Neighborhood Playhouse, which taught “The Method.” New York was the hub of live television productions and he began acting on stage and on tv. In the late 50s, tv shifted to LA, because a third of the shows on the small screen were Westerns. His big break came in Wanted: Dead or Alive ,where he played a bounty hunter with a sawed off Winchester rifle nicknamed “Maire’s Laig” in his trick holster.
He quickly felt confined by the routine of a weekly drama, and aspired to a movie career. But, most of his early films garnered neither good reviews nor good box office. He had his moment of cheesy fame with The Blob, but also the rush of The Great Escape. Restless, he was ready to retire and devote himself to his cars and motorcycles, which he loved far more than his career. He created his own production company, Solar, both as a tax shelter and a company that would allow him creative control over the films he did want to make. Solar would pay him a salary of $300,000 a year, plus a percentage of profits. The company would make him one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, even in years when his films didn’t do well.
This was Edward G. Robinson’s last important role, at the end of a long, celebrated film career. He was paid $10,000/week for 10 weeks. He was pleased that Ring Lardner Jr., one of the Hollywood Ten, could now get screen credit for his work. He was happy to share the poker table with Joan Blondell, who he knew from his Warner Brothers contract heyday. And, he really liked the role. He said it was more like his own character than any part he had ever played. Describing his character, he said, “He was all cold, and discerning and unflappable on the exterior, he was aging and full of self-doubt on the inside.” When the Kid and Lancey have an intermission in their card game, they rest for an hour. “Lancey…sinks to his bed, tired, exhausted, the façade of egotism and assurance crumbled, and his is old and almost finished yet nor ready to give up. It was not hard to play that moment, Jewison did not have to direct me. It was real” (Robinson 210). Since he had to play virtually the entire part with his eyes over the poker table, he said it was his toughest role.
In his autobiography, Robinson spoke at length about his experience with the film. “I was over 70 as I watched the screen, and the man on the screen was over 70, bearded, contained, groomed, self-confident and with the eyes of an eagle. Steve McQueen played the Cincinnati Kid, all jaw muscles, contained, not well groomed, self-confident and with the eyes of an eagle. It seemed to me that once I had been the young Steve McQueen. I had played the same kind of part with that same virginal sense of character, that same undercurrent of sex, subtly motivating the most unsexual of acts, although gambling for high stakes is either a form of, or replaces eroticism. I strongly identified with McQueen. (Heavy, he said.)” (Robinson 209).
“For Robinson, the film was a climax to his career, a public reckoning of his own age and mortality” (Gansberg234). And, Robinson admired his co-star. “He comes out of the tradition of Gable, Bogie, Cagney and even me—but he’s added his own dimension. He is a stunner, and who knows what glory the future holds? But, certainly he is already an honorable member of the company of players” (Robinson 210).
Jewison was also thrilled with Joan Blondell. “When she entered and had a few lines here or there, there was this great energy, this strong presence on camera. We had lots of fun together. She was worried about the part. ‘I’m not good with cards’ she said, ‘Look at these hands—I’ve got arthritis’” but Jewison hired a hand double for her, a man who knew his way around and deck of cards, and painted his nails to match hers. “She had a tough side to her which I loved. But she had a twinkle in her eye, and she could always make me laugh. Whether it was a kind of self-mocking thing she would do, it was very cute. And I thought she was terrific in the film. She was absolutely convincing as one of the top dealers, known by everybody, an artist with cards who can stand up to all of those guys. We were lucky to get her, and I made sure she was treated like a star. I had great respect for her” said Jewison. The director also loved the crackle between Blondell and Robinson. “There was an old star/new star dynamic between Robinson and McQueen, and I encouraged Joan to play on that. So, there’s a scene where she says to Robinson, ‘He’s good and you’re a has-been.’ There was wonderful sparring” (Kennedy 191-2).
“I loved Eddie Robinson in The Cincinnati Kid” she said. “He called me up one day and said, ‘I want to ask you something. When I was young at Warner’s was I a bastard?’ I said, ‘Yes, you were.’ He said, ‘I think so, too.” (Kennedy 192). Much of her role ended up on the cutting room floor, but she was grateful for all her screen time. She had spent much of her recent career on stage, and, before the days of home video, many Steve McQueen’s young fans had never heard of her. Jewison and Ashby loved cutting away to her, even when she didn’t have that much central to the plot going on.
The Cincinnati Kid was the 5th biggest film of 1965 but did not get any Oscar nominations; Joan Blondell was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting actress. Jewison was told by many of his colleagues that it was impossible to make a card game cinematic, and no doubt many of his tricks have been adopted by the endless World Series of Poker games on the sports channels. He knew it all alonghe could make a static game exciting. “But, poker is about winning. That’s why it is so popular in American, because America is about winning.”
The odds of the final hand occurring, according to professional gambler Anthony Holden in his book Big Deal, A Year as a Professional Poker Player, was about 45 million to one. If they played 50 hands of stud an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week, that last hand would occur once every 443 years, But, that’s the kind of all or nothing odds that entice people to gamble in the first place, isn’t it?
McQueen was a devotee of both car and motorcycle driving (“I’m not sure, he once said, “whether I’m an actor who races, or a racer who acts”). His love for cars was real, he owned over 100 when he died of lung cancer at the age of 50. He was an unhappy person who self-medicated with alcohol, drugs and sex, he apparently was not particularly nice, either. In nearly all of his roles, he played variations on his own rebellious personality, was a man of few words and wore his preferred haircut, whether he was in the Old West, WW II or modern day San Francisco. But, in the right role, like this one, he personified the American image of independence, integrity, rebelliousness and quintessential cool.
“And, of course there is McQueen. In the Hall of Fame of Cool, he is a unanimous first ballot inductee” (Didinger, Macnow).
Steve McQueen by Marc Elliot, The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies: Featuring the 100 Greatest Sports Movies of All Time by Ray Didinger, Glen Macnow, Little Caesar: A Biography of Edward G. Robinson by Alan L. Gansberg, Steve McQueen: The Great Escape by Wes D. Gehring, McQueen: The Biography by Christopher Sanford, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy, The Directors: Take One, Volume 1 by Robert J. Emery, All My Yesterdays by Edward G. Robinson, The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz.