Although highly esteemed by many in the poker world, The Cincinnati Kid is not generally rated as one of the “all-time” greats in film history. It certainly didn’t appear on the American Film Institute’s “100 Greatest Movies of All Time” list. (Then again, neither did The General, Meet Me in St. Louis, or The Conversation.) Generally speaking, critics tend to praise certain elements -- the acting, the suspenseful direction/editing, the mostly successful atmospheric recreation of 1930s New Orleans -- while dismissing the plot (as inconsequential or improbable) and/or theme (as superficial or obvious). Most critics give it at most three stars (out of four), some less -- e.g., Leonard Maltin gives it two-and-a-half stars, censuring its “side episodes of meaningless romance.” Even the director, Norman Jewison, introduces the film as his “ugly duckling” in the DVD commentary.
There are a few reasons why the film tends to get demoted to the “watch-it-only-when-there-isn’t-something-better-on” category, I think. One is the fact that despite boasting a truly remarkable, accomplished cast (Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Karl Malden, Ann-Margaret, Rip Torn, Tuesday Weld, Joan Blondell, Jack Weston, Cab Calloway), every single one of these actors (except perhaps Calloway) appeared in films that are markedly better than The Cincinnati Kid. (E.g., if you haven’t seen any films with Karl Malden, rent On the Waterfront already.) Another is its reputation -- not entirely undeserved, actually -- as having borrowed too heavily from the better-known, more highly regarded 1961 film, The Hustler. Finally, the fact that the film is, after all, a “poker movie” has relegated it to a kind of cult status for mainstream audiences -- in other words, the common view is that one probably has to be a poker player (or at least have an interest in poker) in order to find the film at all engaging.
Can’t say I entirely disagree with any of these criticisms. Nor am I willing to go against the general consensus and try to elevate The Cincinnati Kid as some “forgotten classic” overlooked by critics and scholars. However, I do believe there’s a lot to like about the film. The performances by each of the above-named actors are all admirable. McQueen, Robinson, and Malden are terrific, of course, but I particularly enjoy Rip Torn as the embittered and corrupt William Jefferson Slade. (Ann-Margaret’s turn as bad girl Melba Nyle is probably overdone, but nevertheless effectively serves to create the contrast with Tuesday Weld’s Christian.) I think we care enough about the Kid and the other characters to be reasonably affected by the suspense of the story. And the atmospheric interludes presenting us Depression-era New Orleans are all fine, although in the end I find the decision to relocate Jessup’s story from St. Louis to be mostly arbitrary. (In his commentary, Jewison says the film was originally to be set in St. Louis, but was moved to New Orleans since the latter has “more of a special feeling” -- i.e., brief injections of ragtime jazz proved an economical way to affect mood.)
I additionally think the plot is cleverly constructed in a way that makes the film’s primary theme more evident and more affecting. Even though I don’t see much use in having moved the story to New Orleans -- and I also don’t really see any compelling reason to set it in the 1930s rather than the 1950s -- I do like other changes the film makes to Jessup’s story. The most significant alteration involves the character of the Shooter (played by Malden). Unlike in the novel, the Shooter is less of a mentor figure to Eric in the film. He’s a friend -- a longtime, loyal friend -- but he’s no role model for Eric, and actually ends up evolving into a kind of antagonist who hinders the Kid in his attempt to achieve his goal.
In the film, the Shooter is locked in a loveless marriage with the much younger (and wilder) Melba. He also has accrued some gambling debts -- Slade has $12,000 worth of markers on him. Slade also has a grudge against Lancey (whose last name has been changed from Hodges to Howard here), having suffered a large loss to the Man in a private match early in the film, and therefore wants to see the Kid humiliate him. Using the markers as leverage, Slade blackmails the Shooter (who is dealing in the game) into trying to cheat for the Kid. The Shooter does so during some of the early hands, but the Kid catches on and has the Shooter replaced as dealer.
Melba further complicates matters for the Kid. The subplot between the Kid and Christian essentially follows the same trajectory that occurs in the novel: she loves him and he loves her, but he makes it clear to her that the game is more important and she steps aside in order to allow him to pursue his goal of beating the Man. The film, however, has Melba chasing the Kid in Christian’s absence. He resists for most of the film, but during a break in the big game he succumbs to her temptations and sleeps with her (a decision that’s clearly linked to his disappointment with the Shooter for trying to cheat). Christian arrives shortly afterwards and learns of his betrayal -- a significant distraction he then must try to overcome when he returns to the game. (After the game is over and the Kid has lost, there is a brief shot of a forgiving Christian reuniting with him outside the hotel. This is the tacked-on last shot Jewison objects to in his commentary.)
Unlike Leonard Maltin, I don’t think these additions represent mere “side episodes of meaningless romance.” All of these changes heighten challenges faced by the Kid. It is certainly tempting to draw a causal connection between the Kid’s decision to sleep with Melba and his losing to Lancey. (This connection may well be intended by the filmmakers.) By doing so, he not only betrays Christian, he also betrays his friend, the Shooter, and thus could be seen as being “punished” for doing so. He also perhaps seems to violate a rule for male poker players not to allow women to dull their edge. (As Lancey tells him during a break, “Women are a universal problem in our business.”)
But is the Kid’s failure ultimately caused by his having allowed himself to be unduly distracted from the task at hand? I don’t think so. Despite all, he outplays the Man, right down to the final hand. Lancey only wins the all-or-nothing last hand thanks to a particularly fortunate river card -- a one-outer, in fact. As the Man says afterwards, he made “the wrong move at the right time” and won despite his error. (Details of that last hand to come in the next post.)
So I say I think the film does a good job plotting the story in a way that helps communicate the overall theme. But what is that theme? I see The Cincinnati Kid as being about the struggle to make meaning of one’s life, here fashioned as a maturation process (from “Kid” to “Man”). Eric has a goal and knows what is required of him to achieve that goal. However, the world isn’t necessarily going to cooperate -- there are factors out of his control that will affect whether or not he can succeed. Ironically, that is the very lesson -- no one, not even the Man, utterly controls one’s fate in this world -- that allows Eric to “grow up” into a fully-realized adult. When he loses the climactic hand to Lancey, he fails to become “the Man,” yet it is also clear he is no longer just a “kid.”
The successful exploration of this theme is why I particularly admire the film as a poker movie. Why? Because not only does it effectively “use” poker as a means to convey its overall theme, the theme is itself of central importance to poker. As we all know, we can play a hand utterly correctly, trapping our opponent beautifully and causing him to put all of his chips in with only the faintest trace of a chance of winning -- and still lose. Being a “man” (or adult) and not a child means understanding this can happen -- that the world is, ultimately, indifferent to our plight. The Cincinnati Kid ably conveys this truly existential idea.
As I’ve said, I want to add one more post that compares how that last hand appears in Jessup’s novel and how it goes down in the film. The result is the same -- Lancey’s straight flush bests the Kid’s full house -- but the way they get there (the betting, the cards drawn) is different. Significantly so, in my view.