Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Experience and The Cincinnati Kid

Innocence and Experience in 'The Cincinnati Kid'We are now starting to watch and discuss films in earnest in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class. I’ve been showing clips from various poker-themed movies all semester, although we are only watching three in their entirety -- The Cincinnati Kid (1965), California Split (1974), and Rounders (1998).

Yesterday we had a good discussion of The Cincinnati Kid, a film I don’t believe any in the class had ever seen before. Reviews from the students were quite positive. A lot of us -- both young and old -- don’t tend to watch too many films from 40-plus years ago. Thus when we do, and when the film happens to be a good one, there’s often this kind of pleasant surprise that occurs. At least that’s what I’ve noticed whenever I’ve introduced an older film to a group of students like this.

I don’t think the students were necessarily expecting a film as absorbing as The Cincinnati Kid, despite my advertising it as a great story with a well-constructed plot, especially good acting (and casting), and a smart use of poker to explore various themes. But they liked it, and had some smart things to say about it, too.

'The Cincinnati Kid' (1965)One theme we talked about a lot in class was the obvious “innocence vs. experience” one that gets played out in various ways in the movie, most notably in the big heads-up confrontation between “the Kid” (Eric Stoner, played by Steve McQueen) and “the Man” (Lancey Howard, played by Edward G. Robinson).

Speaking of innocence and experience, a while back I wrote a series of posts here about The Cincinnati Kid in which I discussed Richard Jessup's novel, the film, the DVD commentary, and the last hand (in both the novel and film). Looking back on those posts today I see a few good points being made, though I realize how I might well have focused on different aspects of the story and its messages had I written those posts today.

One observation that came up in our class discussion is how during the course of the film the Kid seems always to win. In other words, as solid and steady as the Kid is when compared to most other players, he perhaps lacks the experience of having had to deal with loss (the subject of yesterday’s post, actually).

We don’t see the Man lose much, either, although during the final sequence he does endure a bit of a downswing. Still, from the way he talks about the game and his having played all over the country for 35 years, it’s clear he’s likely been forced to deal with his share of losing along the way. Such experience enables him to arrive at an understanding that, for instance, “money is never an end in itself... it’s simply a tool, as language is to thought.” And how even the best players will find themselves “making the wrong move at the right time” sometimes.

Innocence and Experience in 'The Cincinnati Kid'I didn’t focus on the Kid’s lack of experience with losing in those posts from before. But having revisited the film this week, I’m realizing it’s not only a crucial part of his character, but helps clarify a larger message of the film, too, not to mention perhaps bearing relevance to the way that final hand goes, too.

Not going to spell all that out here today, though. Go watch (or rewatch) the film yourself and decide what you think.

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