Dir. Norman Jewison. Starring Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Karl Malden
Spoilers follow…I almost never do spoiler warnings, and I can’t remember if I’ve ever done one for a film from the 20th Century. Yet this film ends so dramatically and boldly that the shock, one way or another, feels especially meaningful. It’s not a twist, but a lightning strike.
Eric Stoner, the “Cincinnati Kid” (McQueen) has just lost an astronomical sum of money to the nation’s best stud player, Lancey Howard (Robinson). The Kid held a full house. The Man walked his way into a straight flush in diamonds and bet accordingly. The Kid is not a percentage player like Doc Sokal (Milton Selzer), who folded out of the game many hours earlier after having been bested by Lancey. Where Doc figures inscrutably in a little notebook on hands where he’s betting significantly, the Kid’s percentage plays are practiced elsewhere. He’s seen with a workbook with wicked little percentage problems which he figures out rapidly in his head. Lancey should not have had the jack of diamonds, whose eyes glow from the card with like intensity that everyone else’s eyes narrowed with anticipation before the reveal and whose eyes widened with awe afterwards. (A wise viewer, or at least a more dispassionate one than I was at first viewing, would see that jack before it was flipped over. Jewison is all over the eyes of his characters in marvelous close-up beforehand, and we know perfectly well it’s a face card that Lancey needs.) A full house, especially one as good as what the Kid’s packing, ought to be enough to win the hand; it is inconceivable that Lancey might have a straight flush hanging out in the same hand with a full house. The Kid is positively dazed at the end of the game. Even Lancey’s dismissive tone, the first time that he has been anything less than gentlemanly, fails to shake the Kid further than he’s already been pushed. In that moment, it must be first and foremost on the Kid’s mind that he has lost, and that this loss has ruined him in some way. Poker games at this level are like heavyweight boxing matches; a permanent “-1” now sits on a previous stainless record. But it also must not be lost on such a practical, brilliant player that the straight flush simply shouldn’t have been there while he held a full house. It is not merely the most unlikely event which will mar the Kid’s whole life, but probably the most unlikely event to occur in the state of Louisiana in the past hundred years.
Perhaps this is why the Kid hustles to his spot when he’s challenged to a game of chucks—tinks? quarters? I dunno, I’m going with the term I’ve heard before and if it’s unseemly in its old-timey-ness, I’m sorry—by the shoeshine boy (Ken Grant) he’s been beating at that game throughout the picture. The fact that the Kid still jumps up to the set distance to pitch his coin at the curb against this preteen is a brilliant choice, one of those sublime touches which makes all the difference in a movie. It’s a great choice from McQueen. The Kid has been beaten, but he still has the mania that drives any gambler; he’ll compete at anything. He doesn’t even appear to think about it. Muscle memory, irresistible impulse drive him to the line. It’s a great choice from Jewison; he shoots the Kid’s snap to competition using a crane, so we can see his whole body react without placing undue emphasis on his facial expression, keying in on the behaviorist response. Then, just as unthinkable: the Kid can’t cut the boy’s quarter.
The boy has some taunt for the Kid, a recycled version of how the Kid teased him earlier. It’s this defeat that sends the Kid into the arms of his wholesome, girlish lover, Christian (Tuesday Weld). She is impossibly young and doll-like compared to him. McQueen was better than ten years her senior, and even if the Kid is not supposed to be more than a decade older than Christian, I don’t think the movie minds that distance; his brow, which wears furrows and creases that would never dare to touch her face, makes him look all the more haggard at this moment of exigency. Yet even her understanding, appropriately apathetic embrace—Christian doesn’t care about poker or what fame it gives her man, maybe doesn’t even care about living in a city as moderately sized as New Orleans—is not enough to give consolation to the Kid. He’s already cuckolded his mentor and friend Shooter (Malden) earlier in the afternoon. Melba (Ann-Margret) crawled into his bed while he was sleeping and this time he didn’t push her away. Equal parts avaricious, meretricious, and delicious, she hissed a Parthian calumny at him as he stumbled away from the table. Watching him lose his glory and money was enough to turn her against him, for now he is presumably like Shooter, a onetime contender whose defeat at Lancey’s hands has now turned him into a respectable figure on the gambling scene but no more than an arbiter or game manager. Shooter lost his fastball; the Kid has lost his fastball; Melba is fine with breaking balls, but only when she’s the one doing it. At any rate, in the final shot of the film the Kid returns Christian’s hug with zombie affect, perhaps finding the muscle memory again for what happens when a girl puts her arms around him. In that moment, the Cincinnati Kid has failed in his greatest ambition. He has lost his touch so much that a literal kid has beaten him in a contest he won without effort. And his hick girlfriend, the sweetes’ l’il thang, will have to find out sometime that he used his scientific instrument to test the humidity with another woman. There are plenty of movies where the protagonist is dead at the end. The dead are less hopeless than Eric Stoner is at the end of this picture.
This is that rare movie, an ensemble which also has a good story and marvelous editing. The 38th Academy Awards were a really fascinating example of that trouble of awards shows, in which they very often find the right movies to nominate and then trip over their own shoelaces in terms of awarding the right things. (I offer, almost at random, the performance that won Best Actor against the field, or Best Song.) I mention this just because two years later, Norman Jewison would get a nomination for Best Director and Hal Ashby would win Best Editing for their collaboration on In the Heat of the Night. The Cincinnati Kid, which got not a sniff at the Oscars, is to my mind a superior effort to their more historic one. There’s an extraordinary balance in this film, never too far from any of the important characters while still keeping its eye primarily on the Kid. Yet there are stretches where Cincinnati is nowhere to be found. There are stretches of the film where Shooter has to fend off Slade (Rip Torn), a fabulously wealthy and even more fabulously vindictive aristocrat who means to see the Kid beat Lancey by any means necessary. The good girl is matched up against the bad one in more or less equal measure. A little attention is paid to the nobodies who are there to act as company and counters to the main event at the actual poker game; one of the finest stretches of the film comes when Lancey decides he’s going to eliminate Pig (Jack Weston) from the game and does so with muted relish. It’s muted, but not silenced. It seems that most of the room knows that Lancey has his eyes on Pig at the outset of the hand, and Pig, eliminated minutes later, seems to understand only too late that he was in cross hairs and reacts childishly. A little time is even set aside here and there for Joan Blondell’s Lady Fingers, as if she would have any other kind. Lady Fingers is funny, ribbing Lancey both in moments of relaxation and even during the game itself, which is maybe not always appropriate given that she’s dealing hands. I assume that the two of them are a failed couple, but no one ever hints at it besides Robinson’s slightly mournful aspect and Blondell’s roguish glee. None of these minor characters ever threatens to dominate the film. Even the ones with villainous parts to play, like Slade and Melba, can be picked up and set down at the movie’s leisure, which is a sign of deft hands behind the camera and in the editing room. A little dab will do you for both characters, who are both pleasingly cartoonish. Slade is Snidely Whiplash with a Charlestonian voice and who can tie pretty girls to the tracks because he owns the railroad. Melba, for her part, has fake eyelashes so long and prehensile that she could probably tie a cherry stem with them.
What makes this movie shine, though, is the perfect linear progression in its three illustrious male stars. I can’t call this Karl Malden’s best performance, although it might reasonably be said to be the epitome of his star image: the loser who has gripped at a slim chance so desperately that his nails have cracked. I am incredibly tempted to say that this is career-best work from both McQueen (slightly risky but maybe palatable) and Robinson (admittedly heretical). It’s Robinson who absolutely fascinates me in this movie. Where McQueen is the star of the film’s contemporary present, and Malden is the representative from the last decade and its acting fashions, Robinson is, like Blondell, a remnant of three decades earlier. His breakout performance in Little Caesar first arrived in theaters before McQueen was a year old, and in a similar fashion we can envision Lancey Howard gliding from some home base in Miami to various cities to play poker for decades while the universe plans some inevitable showdown with the Kid. Robinson’s performance is that of a man who has seen it all, learned it all. Lancey is wise, and in a circle where boundless confidence brushes everyone within its circumference, he is humble. He always allows for the possibility that the Kid might beat him, no matter how much other people affirm his position as “the Man.” The shot where the camera puts us in the Kid’s position while Lancey stares into it and tells the kid, with brutal honesty, that as long as he’s playing the Kid can never be more than second-best, is stunning. Robinson’s diction is as precise and distinct as ever, his voice maybe a little more gravelly than it was when he was younger. The way he says it while gesticulating neatly with a lit match while he prepares to puff a well-earned cigar is brutal, yet totally appropriate. Lancey can hold a lit match just as long as he sees fit. You don’t get to be the Man without a punctilious sense of timing.