I watched THE CINCINNATI KID (1965) again yesterday. It was one of the films that TCM ran the other day during their Ann-Margret marathon.
Steve McQueen, the avatar of sixties cool, stars as "The Kid", a stud poker player on the make in depression era New Orleans. When legendary player Lancey "The Man" Howard (Edward G. Robinson), comes to town, the Kid is determined to take him on and beat him. He's aided by Shooter (Karl Malden), a former player who lost big to Lancey and now serves as a go-between, arranging high stakes games and acting as the dealer. Shooter is married to Melba (Ann-Margret), a totally amoral woman who cheats at everything including solitaire and jigsaw puzzles. She's a classic bad girl and Ann-Margret is terrific in the role. The Kid has a steady girlfriend, Christian (the lovely Tuesday Weld), who leaves town right before the big game, leaving the Kid to temporarily succumb to Melba's wiles.
The bulk of the film centers around the marathon poker game which takes place in a smoke filled hotel room with lots of spectators and plenty of booze and food on hand. One by one, players exit the game: Pig (Jack Weston), Sokal (Milton Selzer), Yeller (Cab Calloway) until only Lancey and the Kid are left. Shooter and Lady Fingers (Joan Blondell), take turns dealing while Slade (Rip Torn), tries desperately to fix the game in the Kid's favor in an effort to revenge himself for his previous loss to Lancey.
The Kid will have none of that. He wants to beat the man by himself, fair and square and he knows he can do it. It all comes down to a final hand. The Man has a possible Queen high straight flush (diamonds) while the Kid has a possible full house (aces and tens). Somebody wins. Somebody loses.
THE CINCINNATI KID started production with Sam Peckinpah as director but he quickly clashed with producer Martin Ransohoff who fired him and hired Norman Jewison as a replacement. Spencer Tracy was originally cast as Lancey but had to bow out due to health problems. Peckinpah had wanted to shoot the film in black-and-white to give it more of a period feel but Jewsion shot it in color using muted colors throughout to make the reds and blacks of the cards pop when they appear on screen.
Filmed on location in New Orleans and at the MGM studios, THE CINCINNATI KID has a great cast, a tight script (by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern from the novel by Richard Jessup) and top notch direction. It's a pretty simple, straightforward story but it's well mounted and compelling. If you're a fan of Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret and poker like I am, you'll love this film.