For all Rounders has going for it -- a compelling plot, decent characterization, an effective (occasionally transfixing) soundtrack by Christopher Young -- I’ve never really been all that big of a fan. I think my ambivalence has something to do with the fact that while the main character, Mike McDermott, often expresses ambition to “take a shot” at higher stakes, the film itself doesn’t ever take the same sort of chance. To be honest, if it weren’t for the poker I might well have forgotten this movie soon after I saw it. Though entertaining, Rounders is a mostly tame Hollywood fairy tale that I think misses out on several opportunities to introduce genuine tension into the lives of its characters. And, of course, (almost) all is resolved for our hero with that happily-flopped straight in the end.
The Cincinnati Kid, meanwhile, is a film (and story) that strikes me as genuinely ambitious. There’s a sincere attempt made to examine from a number of different angles the game of poker and its significance -- to demonstrate how poker can enter into the process of “meaning-making” with which we all struggle (whether we play the game or not).
I thought I’d take three posts to talk about this here DVD (first released back in the spring of 2005). In this one I’m just going to offer a few words about the two commentary tracks that come with the disc. In the next one I’m going to talk a little bit about Richard Jessup’s novel (a bestseller in 1964) on which the film is based -- a fine, lean example of “hard-boiled” fiction. Then the third post will be my review of the film. (And if you have seen the film, read the book, or heard the commentary -- or just want to defend Rounders -- I’m curious to learn your thoughts as well.)
I should say those who haven’t seen The Cincinnati Kid and who don’t want to run into spoilers can safely read this post (regarding the commentary) and the next one (regarding Jessup’s novel). The third and last post will ruin it for you, though, and so you might well skip that one.
The DVD features two commentary tracks: one by Phil Gordon and Dave Foley (who, at the time, were co-hosting Celebrity Poker Showdown) and the other by the director, Norman Jewison. (There's also a short, mildy interesting “featurette” called “The Cincinnati Kid Plays According to Hoyle,” a promotional short for the film in which Jay Ose, a magician/gambler who served as a technical advisor for the film, performs a few card tricks for Joan Blondell.)
Gordon and Foley only comment on the poker-related scenes (one can program the disc to skip through scenes on which they do not comment). This led me to believe their commentary would include more genuine analysis regarding specific hands, or perhaps some ins and outs about five-card stud (the film’s featured game), but they don’t really offer anything along those lines. Frankly there’s nothing in the pair’s commentary regarding poker that a reasonably aware amateur player wouldn’t already know. I suspect that as was the case with Celebrity Poker Showdown, Gordon and Foley acted as though they were speaking to a wider audience than simply poker players. Don’t feel as though you’ve missed much if you pass on this track.
On the other hand, Jewison’s commentary is much more relevant and engaging -- both to film scholars/fans and to poker players. He offers a lot of inside dope regarding the mechanics of filming/cinematography, talks about what it was like working with McQueen and the other actors, and even makes some genuinely insightful observations about characterization and plot. (Regarding the latter, Jewison reiterates here his previously-stated objection to the studio’s tacked-on final shot of the film -- a plot addendum Jewison himself never endorsed.) Jewison even has some smart things to say about poker and its significance (both to the plot and generally speaking). I found it interesting to hear him say that back in the mid-sixties poker wasn’t considered a subject worthy of filming -- that few thought watching people playing a game of cards would be engaging enough for an audience. (How times have changed.) Jewison clearly understood then how compelling poker can be -- if presented carefully, that is. And Jessup’s tale of the Kid and the Man proved a terrific vehicle to support this theory.
Lewison also retells the story of why he took over directing the film from Sam Peckinpah, and he talks about how Ring Lardner, Jr. (the son of the great sportswriter/humorist and accomplished screenwriter in his own right) and Terry Southern (whose screen credits include Dr. Strangelove, The Loved One, and Easy Rider) came on board to pen the screenplay.
I thought it odd how amid all of the discussion of the plot and screenplay Jewison doesn’t mention Jessup’s novel a single time. (Neither do Gordon and Foley.) The way he talks about the screenplay and the crew’s decision to add this or that detail to a given scene, it almost sounds like the script is not an adaptation but an original work created by Lardner, Jr. and Southern. All of which is somewhat unfortunate for Jessup, whose novel contains many of the same qualities that make the film so special.
As I said, I’ve got a few things to say about Jessup’s novel, then will offer a “poker review” proper of the film after that.