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.

THE PLAYERS

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.

That’s Blaxploitation! 11: Jim Brown in SLAUGHTER (AIP 1972)

Jim Brown  is one bad mother… no wait, that’s Richard Roundtree as Shaft! Jim Brown is one bad dude as SLAUGHTER, a 1972 Blaxploitation revenge yarn chock full of action. Brown’s imposing physical presence dominates the film, and he doesn’t have to do much in the acting department, ’cause Shakespeare this ain’t – it’s a balls to the wall, slam-bang flick courtesy of action specialist Jack Starrett (RUN ANGEL RUN, CLEOPATRA JONES , RACE WITH THE DEVIL) that doesn’t let up until the last second, resulting in one of the genre’s best.

Ex-Green Beret Slaughter (no first name given) is determined to get the bad guys who blew up his dad’s car, with dad in it! Seems dear ol’ dad was mob connected and knew too much. Slaughter’s reckless abandon in seeking revenge lands him in hot water with Treasury agents, and he’s “persuaded” to assist them in taking down the Mafiosos, who’re using a high-tech “supercomputer” to run their illegal enterprises. He’s assigned two handlers, gorgeous but icy Kim and goofy but competent Harry, and flown to an unspecified South American country that looks suspiciously like Mexico City (where most of the movie was shot).

Mafia Don Mario Felice is level-headed, while his capo Dominic Hoffo is a stone cold killer. There’s tension between the two, especially after Felice sends Hoffo’s sexy goomah Ann to spy on Slaughter – and she winds up falling under his sexual spell! There’s plenty of action and a high body count ahead as Slaughter pummels, shoots, and jive talks his way through the movie like the proverbial bull in a china shop, right up until the obligatory car chase ending, which is particularly well-edited by AIP stalwart Renn Reynolds (PSYCH-OUT, THE SAVAGE SEVEN).

Brown is in control as the title character, commanding the film with his macho charisma. He’s kind of like a Blaxploitation Bond, only with no boundaries whatsoever. The always reliable Don Gordon plays sidekick Harry, and delivers some much needed comic relief to all the badassery happening. Stella Stevens as Ann parading around in a skimpy bikini (and less!!) is definitely a highlight, and her sex scenes with Brown torch the screen. Rip Torn shows restraint as Hoffo, until the point where, in a jealous rage, he brutally beats the holy fuck out of Stella. That scene is not for the squeamish! Cameron Mitchell has what amounts to a cameo as the T-Man in charge of the operation, and Marlene Clark (GANJA AND HESS, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS) is given next to nothing to do as agent Kim.

Composer Luchi De Jesus adds a funky music score, as he did for DETROIT 9000, BLACK BELT JONES , and FRIDAY FOSTER. Yes, there is a theme song, this one by the great Billy Preston (later used in Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), which I’ll leave you with as I search for more bodacious Blaxploitation movies for your edification and enlightenment. Take it away, Billy:

Growing Pains: YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW (Warner Brothers 1966)

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Francis Ford Coppola  was still a UCLA film student when he made YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, the 1966 coming of age comedy he used as his MFA thesis. The young Coppola was 27, and had gained experience working for Roger Corman ; indeed, Corman gave him his first break when he hired Coppola to write and direct the horror quickie DEMENTIA 13. But YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW was his first major studio release, and put him on the map as a talent to keep an eye on.

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Bernard Chanticleer is a 19 year old nerd with a way-overprotective mother and disinterested, authoritarian father. He works for Dad at a New York City library, and is constantly goofing up on the job. Dad thinks it’s time for Bernard to spread his wings and move on his own, much to Mom’s displeasure. She finds him a room at a house owned by Miss Thing, who’s tenants include conservative Patrolman Graf. The house comes complete with Miss Thing’s late brother’s chicken, who’ll peck at any females coming to Bernard’s floor, making Mom extremely happy.

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Co-worker Amy Partlett has a crush on Bernard, so man-of-the-world pal Raef tries to school Bernard in how to get in her pants. But Bernard only has eyes for Barbara Darling, a weirdo actress in an Off-Off-Off Broadway play. Barbara, who’s best friend is a dwarf writing her biography, reads Bernard’s gushing fan letter and decides to meet him. But little does he know his dreamgirl is a bipolar nightmare, having him move in, sexually teasing then degrading him to the point where he can’t get it up. Meanwhile, Amy’s frantic calls to the rooming house cause Miss Thing to pay a visit to Dad, winding up locked in a vault with his antique collection of erotica, and the craziness really escalates after Bernard steals Dad’s rare Gutterberg Bible and makes a mad dash through the streets of New York!

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There’s no doubt this was made in the swingin’ 60’s, from the frenetic jumps cuts to the drug references (Raef slips Bernard some LSD) to the soundtrack by John Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful, including the hit single “Darlin’ Be Home Soon”. We even get treated to shots of Bernard touring Times Square in it’s mid-60’s sleazy Grindhouse heyday. Editor Aram Avakian does an outstanding job putting together Copploa’s scenes, incorporating footage from the director’s DEMENTIA 13 and Corman’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM  for good measure.

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The casting is an eclectic mix of newcomers and veterans. Canadian Peter Kastner plays Bernard as earnest yet endearingly goofy, conveying the youthful angst of a mama’s boy trying to break free. Karen Black makes her major film debut as Amy (she had a miniscule part in the 1960 exploitaioner THE PRIME TIME), and went on to a long career. Tony Bill (Raef) had been seen in COME BLOW YOUR HORN and SODLIER IN THE RAIN, later becoming a director (MY BODYGUARD, SIX WEEKS) and producer of note. Elizabeth Hartman (Barbara) had been Oscar nominated the previous year for her debut in A PATCH OF BLUE; at the time, she was the youngest (22) ever nominated for Best Actress.

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The vets include husband-and-wife team (at the time) Rip Torn and Geraldine Page as Bernard’s befuddled parents, Julie Harris as the prudish Miss Thing, Michael Dunn (THE WILD WILD WEST’s Dr. Miguelito Loveless) as Barbara’s confidant, and New York actor Dolph Sweet (later of the sitcom GIMME A BREAK) as the cop. YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW is no GODFATHER or APOCALYPSE NOW, but Coppola fans will want to check out this early work, when the young director was just finding his voice and vision.