Monday, May 30, 2005

The Cincinnati Kid

The game of poker has changed considerably in the 40 years since the release of The Cincinnati Kid, but the fundamental aspects of the game remain thoroughly unchanged. Beyond the rule and style changes, beyond the alterations in lingo and manner of play and advanced strategizing, the game essentially comes down to a couple of people trying to fake one another out.

In Norman Jewison's 1965 poker flick, we get a glimpse of several different types of poker players. There's the impetuous, emotional player who occasionally wins big, the conservative old man who has learned over time to accumulate little scores rather than risk it all for a big payday, and there's even the mathematics nerd who calculates the odds for every turn of the cards.

But by the end of the big game, there's only two guys left, and those are the guys that know how to read people, that know how to work one another's nerves and get inside one another's heads. And though Cincinnati Kid doesn't really delve into the details of poker-playing, it spends its time developing the psychological aspect of the game, the toll of pressure and heated competition over a span of hours and even days. As such, it's one of the greatest card shark movies of all time.

As I said, Jewison doesn't bother to explore the nuances of poker in any detail. The first hour of the film contains next to no actual card playing, with hero Eric Stoner (Steve McQueen) spending his time agonizing over his love affair with the quirky Christian (Tuesday Weld) rather than his play at the card table.

That all changes when The Man comes to town. The Man is Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson), the greatest poker player in the world. See, in Cincinnati Kid, the poker-playing world organizes itself into a strict Confuscian hierarchy, with a single player agreed upon by all involved as the objective Greatest Player (or, The Man). As portrayed by Edward G., in a terrific supporting performance, he's a relic of a bygone era, a gentleman of poker who views himself as a gambling professional rather than a card shark or hustler.

So, of course, we're asked to compare the preening and courteous Lancey with the laconic, detached cool of Stoner (The Cincinnati Kid of the title), in much the same way that Paul Newman's Eddie Felson clashed with Jackie Gleason's Minnesota Fats in The Hustler. The influence of that 1961 classic is all over Cincinnati Kid, which is obviously trying to do for poker what that film did for the underground world of pool.

As in The Hustler, the dynamic isn't as simple as it initially appears. Lancey Howard isn't much of an antagonist to The Kid. They share a bond of mutual respect and even admiration, like two warriors admiring one another's skill and control. The villains take the form of Melba Nile (Ann-Margaret), the slinky gold-digger who's married to The Kid's mentor (Karl Malden), and Slade (Rip Torn), the wealthy heir desperate for revenge against Lancey following a bad beat.

Torn is a marvel in the film, just absolutely conniving and evil. It's one of his best performances (along with, of course, Freddy Got Fingered). In fact, it's really the three leads - McQueen, Torn and Robinson - who keep the film moving through its slow patches. Too much time is spent on the silly love triangle between The Kid, his girlfriend and his mentor's wife, a plot complication that's lazily sketched but never filled in. It doesn't really link up thematically or otherwise with the main storyline, about The Kid's face-off with the best in the world, or enhance our understanding of his character.

Jewison has a great eye, particularly in one sequence with McQueen playfully running across railroad tracks, but he fails to really open the movie up. There are a lot of fixed, interior shots and though the film is set in New Orleans, there are very few notable exterior shots after the first 15 minutes. I understand that the climax occurs in the poker room, but the entire film feels scaled-down and claustrophobic.

As well, it's disappointing that Jewison doesn't trust the game of poker itself to maintain viewer interest. He's constantly trying to "jazz up" the poker scenes, either with lame comedy (such as Jack Weston's over-the-top performance as a whiny, fat loser named, what else, Pig) or, worse, with ludicrous camera work. At one point, when a crucial card is turned over, Jewison zooms in on the card, and then on the eyeballs of everyone sitting around the poker table. LAME!

At another point, when a crucial card is about to be turned up, we go around the room and hear the thoughts of everyone witnessing the action in voice-over. DOUBLE LAME!

It's true, the style of poker on display in the film is five-card stud, which is inherently not terribly interesting to watch (especially when compared to, say, Texas Hold 'Em). But it's the characters struggling against one another that matters, not the specifics of who has what card. These silly flights of fancy do the opposite of Jewison's intent, detracting from the drama of the scene.

That being said, the leads make The Cincinnati Kid highly entertaining. And it has a wonderfully bittersweet conclusion, the kind of ending that scares movie executives and sometimes even puts off audiences, but which makes me want to rewatch the movie. I love a film with enough confidence in its storytelling and characters to end honestly and not pander to audience expectation.

1 comment:

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