Nearly the entire film takes place at a hotel & saloon in Laredo, Texas, ca. late 19th century, the site of an annual private poker game involving “the five richest men in the territory . . . playing for blood.” We eventually learn the game has been going on for sixteen years, and those involved demonstrate their dedication by shirking all other responsibilities to be there. A lawyer, Otto Habershaw (Kevin McCarthy), leaves in the middle of a capital case, abandoning his obligation to defend his client’s life. Another player, Henry Drummond (Jason Robards), takes off in the middle of his daughter’s wedding to be there. Clearly, this is an important game.
The group of five players finally assemble in a private room and commence play while the curious locals gossip without. A few days in, a couple arrive at the hotel with their young son and request a room. Passing through on their way to San Antonio, the family’s wagon is in need of repair, and although the hotel is mainly for cattlemen, the proprietor agrees to fix them up with a room.
The father, Meredith (Henry Fonda), witnesses with special interest an exchange behind the counter of $3,000 for poker chips, and ends up inquiring about the game. It soon becomes evident that Meredith has a severe gambling problem -- he’s on the “poker wagon” -- and while his wife, Mary (Joanne Woodward), is down the road at the blacksmith’s, Meredith manages to get himself invited into the game.
It’s dealer’s choice -- they appear mostly to play either 5-card draw or 5-card stud (no limit). They play “table stakes” -- meaning a player is not allowed to bet more than he has on the table when a hand begins -- although we subsequently see that rule is not strictly observed. Finally, they play “Western rules,” meaning a person is not allowed to “tap out” if he hasn’t got enough to bet. In other words, there are no side pots. If the betting gets too high and a player hasn’t enough to call, that player must “bow out” of the hand and lose whatever he’s put into the pot.
“Rough game,” says Meredith upon hearing the rules. “The game we play,” says Dennis Wilcox (Robert Middleton).
Doesn’t take long before we realize Meredith is in over his head. After losing yet another pot, a sweating, edgy Meredith stammers “it’s a question of averages . . . the cards are due to break for me.” “Famous last words,” comes the reply.
Then comes a most curious hand of 5-card draw in which, incredibly, all six of the players apparently have strong hands. Meredith, down to his last few hundred when the hand begins, finds himself bet out of the hand. Desperate, he gives his cards to his son, then rushes up to the room to collect $3,000 more -- the family’s entire savings -- with which he’s allowed to buy more chips. (As I mentioned, they seem to ignore the “table stakes” rule.) The betting resumes, but with all of the reraising Meredith again finds himself bet out of the hand. He’s put all he has into the pot, yet needs $500 more to call. And even if he does call, he can’t close the betting.
When Meredith objects to the punishing “Western rules,” Wilcox responds: “Now look, mister. The first rule of the game of poker, whether you’re playing eastern or western rules, or the kind they play at the North Pole, is put up or shut up!”
It is at this moment Mary returns, horrified to find Meredith in the game risking their nest egg. Meredith tries frantically to explain to Mary how he’s got a sure winner, the kind of hand that only comes “once in a lifetime.” Meanwhile, he is failing in his efforts to raise funds by selling the family’s wagon to one of the players. Finally overcome, he falls to the floor, the victim of an apparent heart attack.
While the doctor (Burgess Meredith) attends to the ailing Meredith, Drummond indifferently calls out “Doc, I just want to ask a simple question. Is he going to be able to finish this hand?” An upset Mary goes back to her husband lying on a table, and in his delirium he hands his cards to her, indicating that she is going to have to finish the hand for him.
From there we watch Mary take up her husband’s desperate cause to raise enough money to remain in the hand. Not gonna say anymore regarding the plot’s subsequent twists -- to do so would surely lessen yr enjoyment of the film -- but rest assured they are entertaining, and ultimately (I think) help elevate the film a notch above yr average melodrama.
Fonda is compelling as the greenhorn Meredith, well portraying the nervous, overmatched poker player. Woodward and other supporting players are also terrific, with Paul Ford deserving a particular nod for his droll portrayal of the banker, C.P. Ballinger. Fielder Cook directs with a light touch, occasionally emphasizing comic exchanges with nifty cutting and/or shots while avoiding being overly obtrusive.
I’d say A Big Hand for the Little Lady definitely deserves a spot somewhere on those “best poker movie” lists. Particularly when one considers the dearth of good poker movies, generally speaking. Not everyone agrees. In Total Poker, David Spanier has a couple of good things to say about the film, but ultimately he finds it a mostly “silly story.” And Anthony Holden, in Big Deal, points out the obvious rule-breaking that occurs, suggesting that upon witnessing these transgressions “the serious poker player will return to his game without watching further.”
I won’t expend too much energy defending the story against the charge of silliness, although I do think worrying about the players’ adherence to rules misses the point somewhat. I will, however, go ahead and recommend the film not just for its cleverness and entertainment value, but also for the way it genuinely highlights poker as important in terms of both plot and theme.
As far as plot goes, the entire film revolves around that game & the “big hand,” and unlike some lesser poker-themed movies, does a nifty job (in my opinion) simply portraying the game. And while the film may convey different messages to different viewers -- or perhaps none at all, to some -- I see the idea of the bluff as an important thematic point here, insofar as the film does invite viewers to think about the significance of bluffing when telling a story, whether in a hand of poker or in a film.
Besides, there are a number of great poker-related lines in there, too. I’ll leave you with one. After learning the men aren’t interested in buying the family’s wagon, Mary mutters with disdain how they “are all such gallant gentlemen.” To which Drummond replies . . .
“We’re gallant on Sunday. This is Friday, and we’re playing poker.”