Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Cincinnati Kid

I'm not really into card games, but am nonetheless fascinated when I watch poker matches.  To witness the faces, the pauses, the hesitations.  Of the ones I've seen in person, even a good natured game among friends can reek of sweat and despair, sometimes growing more tense with each hand.  Numerous films have used this culture as a backdrop to examine the psychological profiles of the players.  Often a desperate lot.  All strata of society.  Some wear fancier threads than others, but the anxiousness within and without may be similar.  Many cardsharps find no satisfaction in winning though are driven by that goal.  If reached, they may well sink into a deep depression.  Witness that great final moment of Robert Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT.  Elliott Gould's expression says everything you need to know.

1965's THE CINCINNATI KID, to my eyes a bit too similar to the earlier THE HUSTLER, spends a few days with "The Kid" aka Eric Stoner (Steve McQueen).  He's an upstart poker hotshot who seems to possess innate talent for the game, with a quiet confidence to match.  We first see him walking the streets of New Orleans, past a parade of jazz musicians and stopping to pitch pennies with a shoe shine boy; even in that innocent game, "The Kid" always wins.

Lancy Howard (Edward G. Robinson), "The Man", is in town and The Kid wants to take him down.   A dealer named Shooter (Karl Malden, quite good) warns Stoner not to try, speaking from experience. Shooter is a decent soul, a put upon sad sack with an alluring, lecherous wife named Melba (Ann-Margaret) and has spent the last quarter century trying to go legit. When a rich local named William Jefferson Slade (Rip Torn) threatens Shooter into crookedly dealing for The Kid during the big match, the poor lug finds himself unable to refuse, what with big debts owed to Slade, who also has some potential blackmail involving Melba.

Much of THE CINCINNATI KID takes place behind tables in smoky, sunlight deprived rooms. You can almost taste the stench of moldy wall to wall carpeting.   Lots of soft dialogue announcing the latest hand.  It never ceased to hold my interest.  Much credit must go to Hal Ashby's editing. It's tense and almost exciting at times.  The average shot lengths are always just right.  No silly inserts of eyes peering over cards.  Let's not forget Norman Jewison's thoughtful direction.  There is a natural drama unfolding as each card is placed on the table.

Who wins? Important, but the movie isn't all about the match.  Ultimately, someone will get some hard lessons in Life. Cliched? Of course, right down to Joan Blondell's amusing turn as Lady Fingers, a grand dame of the parlor.  But there may be a ray of hope to assuage the sad resignation.

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