There are movies about the high-stakes world of poker, and then there’s THE CINCINNATI KID. This gripping look at backroom gambling has long been a favorite of mine because of the high-powered all-star cast led by two acting icons from two separate generations – “The Epitome of Cool” Steve McQueen and “Original Gangster” Edward G. Robinson . The film was a breakthrough for director Norman Jewison, who went after this from lightweight fluff like 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE and SEND ME NO FLOWERS to weightier material like IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR.
The film revolves around a poker showdown between up and coming young stud Eric Stoner, known as The Kid, and veteran Lancey Howard, venerated in card playing circles as The Man. This theme of young tyro vs old pro wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, having been hashed and rehashed in countless Westerns over the years, but screenwriters Terry Southern and Ring Lardner Jr’s changing the setting from a dusty cowtown to a five-card stud table for that inevitable showdown makes all the difference.
Steve McQueen as The Kid
McQueen was at the top of his game after starring in hits like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE, and his intense underplaying as The Kid captures the zeitgeist of mid-60’s cool like no other.
Edward G. Robinson as Lancey, “The Man”
Eddie G. had burst into screen history as bombastic Rico Bandello in LITTLE CAESAR 35 years earlier, but his performance here is both shaded and subtle. Robinson SHOULD’VE won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but wasn’t even nominated – Yet Another Oscar Crime (in my humble opinion)!
Ann-Margret as Melba
For my money, nobody did onscreen sluttiness better than Annie, and here she’s at her steamy best as trampy Melba, wife of game dealer Shooter.
Karl Malden as Shooter
Malden excels as the cuckolded, compromised dealer, saddled with both a loveless marriage to Melba and huge debts to rich gambler Slade. Like Robinson, Malden should have been at least considered for an Oscar nom.
Tuesday Weld as Christian
The criminally underrated Miss Weld turns in a fine performance as The Kid’s sweet but slightly dimwitted girl Christian. Tuesday had previously costarred opposite McQueen in SOLDIER IN THE RAIN, and the pair work well together.
Joan Blondell as Lady Fingers
Another 30’s icon, Our Girl Joanie is at her best as the boisterous, been-there-done-that relief dealer Lady Fingers. Blondell and Robinson were reunited here for the first time since 1936’s BULLETS OR BALLOTS, and watching these two old pros together again is a joy!
Rip Torn as Slade
The late, great Rip Torn, who passed away a few short days ago at age 88, plays Slade, the bad guy of the piece. He’s the embodiment of Southern decadence, and is always worth watching (for more Rip Torn performances, watch his Judas Iscariot in KING OF KINGS, writer Henry Miller in TROPIC OF CANCER, country singer Maury Dann in PAYDAY, and of course Zed in the MEN IN BLACK movies. Rest in peace, Rip).
Jack Weston as Pig
Weston doesn’t get much attention these days, but this marvelous character actor graced us in movies ranging from THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET to WAIT UNTIL DARK, CACTUS FLOWER to GATOR, HIGH ROAD TO CHINA to DIRTY DANCING. His role is small here, but Weston always manages to shine.
Cab Calloway as Yeller
Like Weston, Calloway’s part is small, but without the “Hi-De-Ho” Man, THE CINCINNATI KID just wouldn’t have been the same. Calloway hadn’t been on American screens since 1958’s ST. LOUIS BLUES, and it’s always a treat to see him again.
Add to that list a plethora of Familiar Faces, including Jeff Corey , Robert DoQui, Theo Marcuse, Burt Mustin, Milton Selzer, Ron Soble, Karl Swenson, Dub Taylor , Irene Tedrow (as Tuesday’s mom), Charles Wagenheim , and Midge Ware, and you’ve got a Master Class of screen acting going on (and a special shout-out goes to young Ken Grant as the nickle-pitching shoeshine boy). Lalo Schifrin provides the jazzy score, DP Philip Lathrop’s shot composition is perfectly framed, and future director Hal Ashby adds some stunning editing work. THE CINCINNATI KID is a real treat for film buffs, one I’ve seen many times over, and surely will again.