The Cincinnati Kid (1965) – A Movie Review

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.

Double Indemnity – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Fred MacMurray was a big movie star of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s who transitioned into a beloved TV father figure in his long running series My Three Sons.  In almost all of that long and popular career he was always the kind, mild-mannered and upstanding American man.  There were three exceptions that I can think of.  One was a film I’ve previously reviewed here, “The Caine Mutiny” in which MacMurray was a manipulative naval officer who brings about a mutiny for which he escapes blame but others are court-martialed.  Another was a movie called “The Apartment where he is a philandering corporate executive.  And the third is the present film, Double Indemnity.  MacMurray is insurance salesman, Walter Neff.  Barbara Stanwyck is Phyllis Dietrichson, the wife of one of Neff’s policy holders and Edward G. Robinson is Barton Keyes an insurance investigator and Neff’s good friend.  The story revolves around the plot by MacMurray and Stanwyck to murder her husband and collect on a double indemnity life insurance policy.  The details of the murder are actually kind of ingenious and the story has plenty of interesting twists and minor characters that enliven the action.  All in all, the production is well acted and very well written.  In particular, Edward G Robinson’s character steals the show.  He is clever, likeable and provides the moral anchor against which we can weigh the evil being perpetrated by MacMurray and Stanwyck.

The only real problem with the movie is that MacMurray’s character is supposed to be a fast talking, wise cracking, hard boiled character.  He’s supposed to be the kind of character that George Raft or Humphrey Bogart might have played.  But he’s Fred MacMurray.  So, every time he calls Barbara Stanwyck, “baby,” which by the way he seems to do about a hundred times, all I can think of is him playing absent minded Prof. Ned Brainard in Disney’s movie the “Son of Flubber.”  It just doesn’t work.  He’s too nice a guy to believe as a cold-blooded murderer.

The other hiccough in the plot is the scene where MacMurray and Stanwyck fall out.  At one point, Stanwyck abandons here cold-blooded behavior with an altruistic explanation that must have been based on a Hayes Code requirement but just doesn’t make any theatrical sense.

These two considerations aside the movie is an entertaining story with an engaging plot and good acting by both the primary and secondary characters.  Even with my reservations about MacMurray’s believability as bad guy I can still see this movie over and over and still enjoy it.  The secret I believe is Edward G Robinson.  His character allows us to side with the forces of rationality when they intervene and subdue the chaotic outbreak that Neff and Dietrichson unleash with their clever plan.  And Robinson gets to hammer home his side of the story in the final scene where he confronts his murderous friend and tells him how it all will end.  The only accommodation he makes to their old friendship is lighting a match for Neff when he is too weak to light his own cigarette.  And in a 1940’s movie, if you can’t even light your own cigarette you know you’re as good as dead.