Royal Flush: THE CINCINNATI KID (MGM 1965)

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.

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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.

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Celebrity Hound: Gregory Peck in THE GUNFIGHTER (20th Century-Fox 1950)

By the late 1940’s, the Western was beginning to grow up. Films like Robert Wise’s BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948), Mark Robson’s ROUGHSHOD (1949), and William Wellman’s YELLOW SKY (1949) incorporated darker, more adult themes than the run-of-the-mill shoot ’em up. Henry King’s THE GUNFIGHTER tackles the still-relevant issues of celebrity culture and the price of fame, personified by Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a notorious fast gun whose reputation brings him the adulation of the masses but little peace.

Jimmy Ringo is weary of being challenged everywhere he goes by young punks eager to make a name for themselves. When one such punk (played by a young Richard Jaeckel) draws on him at in a saloon, he quickly learns how Jimmy earned his fast-draw rep. Problem is the punk has three brothers who “ain’t gonna care who drew first”. Ringo once again hits the trail, heading for the town of Cayenne, New Mexico, this time with a purpose in mind. His estranged wife Peggy is living there, along with the child he’s never met, having been on the run eight long years.

Cayenne is all a-buzz about the presence of the infamous gunfighter in their humble town. Saloonkeeper Mac (Karl Malden ) treats him like royalty. The local schoolkids, including Jimmy’s own, skip class and line the streets to get a glimpse of the famous Jimmy Ringo. But not all are so welcoming. Jimmy’s former outlaw pal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell ) is now town marshal, and wants his old pardner out-of-town ASAP. Peggy (Helen Westcott) refuses to see him. Yet another young punk, Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier ), wants to test his mettle against Ringo. The ladies auxiliary (led by Verna Felton and Ellen Corby ) demand he leave town. And those three brothers keep riding, hot on Jimmy’s trail and hellbent on revenge…

Peck cuts a menacing figure as Jimmy Ringo, with his perpetual scowl and dark moustache. By this time, he had become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, with credits like THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, SPELLBOUND, THE YEARLING, DUEL IN THE SUN, and GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT. More hits would follow, including his Oscar-winning performance in 1962’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Jimmy Ringo is tired of being hounded at every turn, whether by celebrity seekers or the next two-bit punk. Ringo’s an outlaw and a killer, to be sure,  yet Peck manages to elicit sympathy as a man who only wants to live out the rest of his life in peace and anonymity.

All the supporting cast are good, but I wanted to make special mention of Jean Parker in the role of Molly, a saloon girl once married to one of Ringo’s gang. Miss Parker, a promising starlet in the early 30’s, had been relegated to starring in low-budget films for Universal, Monogram, and PRC for a decade. THE GUNFIGHTER was her first movie role in four years, after replacing Judy Holliday on Broadway in BORN YESTERDAY, and she makes the most of her limited screen time. Some of my favorites with her are Laurel & Hardy’s THE FLYING DEUCES, Lon Chaney Jr’s “Inner Sanctum” mystery DEAD MAN’S EYES, and Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD (with John Carradine). It’s a pleasure to see Jean Parker in anything, and her presence adds to this film’s success.

Director Henry King made his first film in 1915, and was responsible for classics like IN OLD CHICAGO, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, WILSON , TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (with Peck), and LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING, among many others. King keeps his focus on Ringo and the world he lives in, hunted and haunted by his notoriety. THE GUNFIGHTER is a genre classic, and helped the Western movie mature and move with the times. As relevant today as it was in 1950, in my opinion this is a must-see film.

 

METEOR is a Crashing Bore (AIP 1979)

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American-International Pictures had gotten pretty fancy-schmancy by the late 70’s. The studio was leaving their exploitation roots behind and branching out to bigger budgeted films like FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE, LOVE AT FIRST BITE, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, with bigger name stars for marquee allure. Toward the end of 1979 they released METEOR, a $16 million dollar, star-studded, special-effects laden, sci-fi/ disaster film spectacle that bombed at the box-office and contributed to the company’s demise.

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Coming at the tail end of the disaster cycle, METEOR is formulaic as hell. Take a group of well-known stars (Sean Connery, Natalie Wood Karl Malden Brian Keith , Martin Landau, Henry Fonda ), give them a disastrous menace to combat (in this case a five-mile wide meteor hurtling toward Earth), add some conflict (US/USSR Cold War relations), and some scenes of destruction, and voila! instant disaster movie! Unfortunately, by 1979 audiences had already grown tired of the formula and its various permutations, leaving METEOR to crumble like so much space dust.

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A brief summary: former NASA scientist Paul Bradley (Connery), creator of America’s secret nuclear missile defense satellite Hercules, is plucked from his yacht race and brought back into service by ex-boss Harry Sherwood (Malden). A wayward comet has struck the asteroid belt, and now the aforementioned five-mile-wide meteor (nicknamed Orpheus) threatens good ol’ Mother Earth. The President (Fonda) holds a televised speech admitting they have the nuclear satellite, and asks for Russia’s cooperation, knowing they too have one (code name Peter The Great). The Ruskies send scientist Dr. Dubov (Keith) and his astrophysicist interpreter Tatiana (Wood) to help, much to the chagrin of commie-hating General Adlan (Landau). Now that the two superpowers have joined together, can they put aside their differences and turn their respective missiles at Orpheus instead of each other in time to avert a global catastrophe?

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It’s not exciting as it may sound. Connery looks bored, Malden and Landau overact, and Fonda’s obviously only there for the paycheck. Only Keith and Wood seem engaged in the material, though Trevor Howard does okay in his tiny role as a British astronomer. Besides the big names, there are other, lesser Familiar Faces in lesser roles: Joseph Campanella, Richard Dysart, Bibi Besch, Sybil Danning, Gregory Gaye, Clyde Kusatsu, newscaster Clete Roberts, and Uncle Walt’s nephew Roy Disney (wait… how’d he get in here??). They even got THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE’s Ronald Neame to direct, hoping to capture some of that movie’s popularity. Didn’t work- the new film was nowhere near that early disaster classic in terms of character development, script, or excitement.

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The special effects scenes are good, not great. There’s a tsunami in Hong Kong, an avalanche in the Swiss Alps, and a meteor fragment that destroys a large swath of New York City. There are some unintentionally funny moments, like watching Connery and Malden slog through a muddy flood in a subway tunnel, Malden’s comb-over flopping down his shoulder. We get ominous music every time Orpheus appears onscreen, kind of like when “Bruce” shows up in JAWS. It’s all silly and overwrought, and by the next year AIP founder Samuel Arkoff, his big-budget gambles all gone sour, sold the company to Filmways, which was later bought out by Orion, which in turn was sold to MGM, who now own the rights to the AIP catalog. Old Sam should’ve stuck with beach parties and monster movies.

Darkness on the Edge of Town: WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (20th Century Fox 1950)

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I recorded WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS way back in June, and haven’t watched it until just recently. It was well worth the wait, for this is one of the finest noirs I’ve seen yet. Director Otto Preminger reunited with the stars of his film LAURA, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, to give us a bleak crime drama that more than holds its own with the best films noir of the era.

Police Detective Mark Dixon (Andrews) is a proto-Dirty Harry cop, a tough SOB not above laying the smackdown on New York City’s criminal element. Another assault charge leads to Mark being demoted by his superiors. Mark’s got a reason for his brutality tactics, though: his father was a criminal, and he’s psychologically compelled to clean up the corruption in his city.

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He’s particularly got a hair across his ass about gambling czar Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), who was set up in business by Mark’s father. When a murder occurs at one of Scalise’s floating crap games, Mark wants to pin it on the gangster, but new Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden) warns him not to fly off the handle. Suspect Kenneth Paine (Craig Stevens) is tracked down by Mark, and a scuffle breaks out. Mark kills Paine accidentally, and covers it up by making it look like Paine’s left town. Paine’s ex-wife, model Morgan (Tierney) was also at the crap game, and Mark questions her. Things take a wrong turn when Morgan’s cab driver dad Jiggs (Tom Tully ) winds up implicated for Paine’s death, and now Mark has to prove the old man’s innocence without letting the truth about himself be known.

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WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS is a classic example of the “downward spiral” in noir. The web of lies Mark’s spun causes things to rapidly spin out of control. Preminger keeps things moving at a fast clip from a taut screenplay by Ben Hecht. DP Joseph LaShelle’s black & white photography is appropriately stark and as good as his Oscar-winning job on LAURA, as is Louis Loeffler’s editing. Cyril Mockridge’s score set just the right tone.

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Andrews and Tierney made a solid screen team, and Merrill is surprisingly good as a gangster type. Besides those previously mentioned, Familiar Faces in the cast are Bert Freed, Ruth Donnelly, Neville Brand, Robert F. Simon, and Harry Von Zell. And Tierney’s then-husband, fashion designer Oleg Cassini, has a bit as (what else?) a fashion designer. WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS may be no LAURA, but it compares favorably to genre titles like THE BIG HEAT and THE KILLERS. It’s an underrated treat noir fans won’t want to miss.