Here’s a movie that I can’t decide if I love or hate. Steve McQueen is the too cool to have any facial expression Cincinnati Kid. He’s a stud poker player in in New Orleans. His girlfriend is too cute for words farm girl Christian (played by Tuesday Weld) and his mentor is Shooter played by Karl Malden. Shooter is the man who arranges all the high-end poker matches and acts as the professional dealer. He’s married to Melba, played way over the top by Ann Margaret as she slinks around in her underwear waiting for the Kid to betray his girlfriend and her husband and join her in bed.
The climax of the movie is a high stakes poker match between the Kid and Lancey Howard played by Edward G. Robinson. Lancey is “The Man.” If the Kid can beat him, he becomes the foremost stud poker player in his world and his future becomes assured. But a rich New Orleans gambler named Slade (played by Rip Torn) is stinging from a poker beating he took from Lancey and he extorts Shooter to throw the game to the Kid. Halfway through Cincinnati figures out he’s being fed cards and because he wants to win the game himself, he forces Shooter out of the deal. And for good measure, during one of the breaks from poker, he beds Melba. Unfortunately, Christian picks exactly that moment to return from a visit to her parents and discovers Melba even less dressed than usual in Cincinnati’s room.
The end of the game comes in a hand that includes an ace high full house and a straight flush. Oh, come on! I’ll let you watch the movie to see who ends up on top but I’ll add that the Kid ends up getting the girl back (at least in one version of the movie).
So why can’t I figure out how I feel about the movie? Well, it’s a construct. It’s like they put it together by recipe. Ultra-cool young gambler, Steve McQueen, check. Impossibly sweet, pretty blonde girl, Tuesday Weld, check. Cast of familiar, stereotyped character actors, check, check, check. Voluptuous, half naked girl throwing herself at star, Ann Margaret, check. Classy, golden age actor to lend some gravitas, Edward G. Robinson, checkmate. It’s all by the numbers. They even lay on the New Orleans atmosphere with old time jazz players and even throw Cab Calloway in as one of the gamblers. It’s just too much.
But for whatever reason if I’m in the mood to watch a spectacle I end up enjoying the movie. Edward G. Robinson is just too much fun to watch and listen to. He doesn’t have that much to work with but he fills out the roll with style. We feel the aches and pains of the old man sitting hour after hour at the table playing against the younger man. His banter with Joan Blondell as the alternate dealer “Lady Fingers” is amusing. Even the scene where the Kid meets Christian’s back country family and shows them some card tricks is charming. What can I say? I like it. I know it’s a set up and I’m the mark but it works. The critics said this was a copycat movie of Paul Newman’s pool room film, “The Hustler.” They’re probably right. But this is the less serious, less fraught version and I think it’s more enjoyable. I’ll recommend it with my remarks above as the qualifier. It’s a contrived spectacle but that’s what Hollywood makes.