DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Cincinnati Kid

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Cincinnati Kid

The Cincinnati Kid (1965) dir. Norman Jewison
Starring: Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Ann-Margaret, Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld, Joan Blondell, Rip Torn, Cab Calloway, Milton Selzer, Jeff Corey


By Greg Klymkiw

These days it's hard to for me to watch Norman Jewison's The Cincinnati Kid without wondering about the picture that could have been if its original director Sam Peckinpah had not been replaced after only two weeks of shooting.

This, of course, is always the problem with knowing too much about a movie before you see it and why in recent years I've refused to watch trailers, read reviews and/or puff pieces and resist, as best I can, the onslaught of publicity accompanying virtually every new theatrical release. It's tough to do, but I've been pretty successful at having a relatively clean slate when I see movies now.

Not so with older films, though.

And knowing too much kept me away from The Cincinnati Kid for far too long.

My first helping of Jewison's thrilling, finely crafted ode to the world of back-room poker games was at the age of six or seven and I distinctly recall loving it for many years afterwards and trying to see it whenever it was replayed on television (uh, we didn't have home entertainment options other than broadcast television, kids, and some of us didn't even have cable television until we were in our teen years or older).

What I remember most is loving Steve McQueen. I can't think of any kids my age who DIDN'T love him. He was the antithesis to established stalwarts like John Wayne and even the up-and-coming (oh yes, there was such a time) Clint Eastwood.

Steve McQueen was cool! Super cool! His laconic, tight-lipped brand of manhood was what WE all wanted to be as red-blooded young males. The Duke was what we wanted our fathers to be and Clint was, well, Clint - a screen hero ON-screen, but untouchable as a persona - even in our imaginations.

Kind of like Jesus Christ.

With Steve McQueen, though, it was so easy to slip into his shoes in both fantasy and play. He was the modern man and most importantly, EVERY MAN. And damn, if boys did not want to be MEN! And the man we chose to be, the man we imagined we could be, was McQueen.

The other thing I remember loving as a kid was the WORLD of The Cincinnati Kid. Like The Hustler, it depicted cool guys smoking Marlies or Luckies, surrounded by gorgeous dames (yes, DAMES, not WOMEN) who adored them. And they played games for a living instead of working. And they played hard.

What wasn't to love?

As the years advanced, The Cincinnati Kid faded from my thoughts and Robert Rossen's The Hustler replaced it as the movie to beat in the men-who-play-games genre. This certainly made sense in terms of how my tastes developed - something about the hip, breezy mid-60s style of Jewison's approach to the tale began to pale against my discovery and re-discovery of late 50s on-the-sleeve male angst of Walter Tevis's novel of the poolhall-hustle and Robert Rossen's grim, sweat-drenched film adaptation.

In addition to this, I became increasingly obsessive with the work of Sam Peckinpah and upon learning that the iconoclastic genius had been the original director of The Cincinnati Kid, I immediately wanted to know more about THAT movie - a movie that didn't even really exist except in Peckinpah's mind and by extension, ours.

During most of my early adult life, the only information I could find on the matter was a handful of odd reports in the trades about how Peckinpah was behind schedule, over-budget and most of all, wasting precious shooting hours on lascivious nude footage of an actress in bed with Rip Torn, the co-star and chief villain of The Cincinnati Kid.

Peckinpah's firing from the picture led to a long period of inactivity. He had, as it turned out, become persona non Grata in Hollywood.

More years chugged by and long after Peckinpah's death, I continued to watch and re-watch his work, while through this time, all I could think about was how Peckinpah could have brought his penchant for the grubby grotesqueness of life to the world of hardcore poker players. God knows, Peckinpah lived life as mean and hard as the men in his films and looking at his most personal work, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, the mere IDEA of Peckinpah directing The Cincinnati Kid was enough to get me salivating.

In 2001, David Weddle's great book "If They Move, Kill 'Em - The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah" was published and for the first time, it became clear what happened. Peckinpah was hired by one of the least creative producers in Hollywood.

An inveterate deal maker, Martin Ransohoff's company Filmways specialized in television commercials, and then rural-based TV sitcoms like "The Beverly Hillbilles", "Green Acres" and "Petticoat Junction" and years later, the long-running game show "Hollywood Squares".

Ransohoff initially thought of The Cincinnati Kid as a western with playing cards instead of guns and was thrilled to have Peckinpah, the director of the acclaimed western Ride The High Country on board. Peckinpah started the project that had no script save for a long treatment by Paddy Chayefsky. Eventually, the treatment was cobbled into a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern. Peckinpah took the writing he liked best and made the movie his own. And as always, he did a lot of the writing himself - uncredited, of course.

Ransohoff, for his part, wanted to make - no kidding, these are his words - a "Popsicle".

Shooting in black and white, Peckinpah retained a labour riot from Ring Lardner's script, dehumanized the female characters - objectifying them - not out of misogyny, but as a realistic comment on this male-dominated sub-culture of high-stakes back-room poker and, as was Peckinpah's wont, he added higher levels of violence and sex.

What a movie!

It was, however, never finished.

Ransohoff viewed two weeks of rushes, declared them as "dour" and promptly fired Peckinpah.

Peckinpah's previous picture, Major Dundee - a film that had "masterpiece" written all over it until the moronic producer on that one, Jerry Bresler, took the picture away from "Bloody Sam" in post-production and butchered it - going so far as to maliciously and intentionally sabotage the picture and lay blame on its director.

Bresler obsessively chided Ransohoff in the early going of The Cincinnati Kid - claiming a "maniac" was now at the helm. Peckinpah ignored all stupid suggestions from Ransohoff (which, it seems, were ALL stupid) .

Once shooting began, Ransohoff never went near the set. He sent a bum boy to spy while he busied himself on deal-making for future productions and oversaw his myriad of television productions - no doubt spending an inordinate amount of time auditioning swine for the role of "Arnold the pig" on the series "Petticoat Junction". The spy told tales out of school to his boss - all of which have since been publicly refuted by all major players on the set.

For his part, Peckinpah staged a fight scene, a chase scene and a labour riot with 200 extras. According to numerous witnesses on-set, he latter sequence was brilliantly and efficiently shot in ONE DAY!!!

Hardly the work of an out-of-control maniac.

Alas, Ransohoff wanted his "Popsicle" and did what needed to be done. He hired Norman Jewison. Surely the director of 40 Pounds of Trouble and Send Me No Flowers was just what the doctor ordered.

Jewison, as it turned out, had no intention of making a "Popsicle". He had already made his fair share of cinematic frozen lollies (exquisitely wrought, I might add) and was ready for a change in direction. For Jewison, entertainment would be the order of the day, but not at the expense of drama nor capturing a sense of time and place.

Seeing The Cincinnati Kid recently on Blu-ray, I was delighted that it held up magnificently. Everything I loved about the picture as a kid was there - and then some. In fact, seeing it recently, I was - on one hand sorry I avoided seeing it again for such a long time, but on the other, I was delighted to have done so as it seemed as fresh, vital and entertaining as when I first saw it. (Added life experience - including a 4-year stint surrounded by gamblers as a bet seller at a racetrack and seeing a few thousand more movies both didn't hurt.)

Jewison himself refers to the picture as his "Ugly Duckling" - that special favourite that provided his crossover from early-60s rom-com purgatory to a world where he delivered some of the coolest and most important American pictures of the last half of the 20th Century (In the Heat of the Night, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rollerball, Fiddler on the Roof and Moonstruck).

This classic gambling picture stands on its own as one of the best of its kind.

McQueen plays Eric Stoner (nicknamed the "Kid"), a poker player of the highest order who is just as happy cleaning out dubious lower-drawer sleaze balls in crummy joints as he is in more upscale surroundings. In fact, he probably enjoys the sleazier games, but like all those who prefer a steady diet of tough, but tasty flank steaks, he needs a tender filet Mignon to remind him what his ultimate goals are - wealth and more importantly, total domination.

When the Kid finds out that primo gambler Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson) is coming to town, he asks his old pal Shooter (Karl Malden) to set up a match. Malden once held the top-dog spot until Lancey gutted him many years ago and has since built his reputation as an honest dealer and match-maker. Shooter promotes a warm-up round and pits Slade (Rip Torn), a local sleazy "businessman" against Lancey. Slade is gutted mercilessly. He blackmails Shooter to fix the deals in the Kid's favour to get revenge on Lancey.

When the big game comes, the Kid wins so many hands he suspects something's up. He confronts Shooter privately and not only demands fair deals, but - almost in retaliation - beds down Shooter's woman Melba (Ann-Margaret) and in the process, cheats on his own woman Christian (Tuesday Weld). When the next round begins, the Kid fixes it so that Shooter is retired from dealing. The wise-cracking old dame Lady Fingers (Joan Blondell) controls the deck. No cheating now. And the Kid begins his handiwork - winning hand after hand and gutting top-dog Lancey.

The final hand, to determine the ultimate winner, is one of the most thrilling set-pieces ever committed to celluloid in an American film. It's a scorcher - cards dealt, lots of sweat, billows of smoke, money piled up, poker faces betraying little, but extreme closeups of eyes betraying all. The cutting in this sequence, as it is through most of the film, is expertly rendered by editor Hal Ashby (who eventually went on to direct such classics as Being There, The Last Detail and Shampoo, to name but a few).

I love watching card games on film. Many critics complained that The Cincinnati Kid paled in comparison to The Hustler because pool was more visual and hence, more cinematic. What a crock! You either buy into the world of this film and, in particular, card playing - or you don't. Given the picture's success upon its first theatrical release as well as its staying power, the movie made card playing as thrilling as any sporting activity on film. In fact, there's only one picture that bests it in terms of on-screen poker playing - that being Martin Campbell's James Bond reboot Casino Royale with Daniel Craig. That's not a bad run. It took 40 years for someone to edge out The Cincinnati Kid in the poker-on-film sweepstakes and, I might add, only by a hair.

Jewison's picture soars on a number of fronts. With cinematographer Philip Lathrop and a first rate production design team, Jewison drains the picture of primary colours which delivers a unique and visually stunning antiquity. During the poker scenes, the blood red on the face cards jump out with far more power than any 3-D effect - overused with such abandon now - and it's this combination of light and design that delivers a contemporary flavour to the proceedings. So much so, that the movie seldom feels dated in terms of its mise en scene.

Only the 60s hair-dos of the female leads betray the period in which the movie is shot - but this, has more to do with the numb-nuts Martin Ransohoff and his desire for a "Popsicle" instead of a movie. In fact, one of the producer's arguments with Peckinpah was his insistence that the picture's focus should be on the love triangle between Steve McQueen, Ann-Margaret and Tuesday Weld (will Steve choose the "good" girl or the "bad"?).

Interestingly, Jewison seems as disinterested in the love triangle as Peckinpah was. For Peckinpah, women just didn't figure prominently in such a world (save for charming tough old birds like Lady Fingers). Again, this had nothing to do with a misogynistic view (an erroneous, easy and oft-volleyed criticism), but rather, Peckinpah's exploration of worlds that, by there very nature harboured misogyny.

Jewison appears to be a good sport about indulging Ransohoff's overwhelming aesthetic obsession - the ladies are there as eye candy. Nothing more, nothing less. In fact, the ending that appears on the Blu-ray release is NOT Jewison's preferred ending, but rather, Ransohoff's - which, idiotically attaches a happy conclusion to one of the love relationships and detracts from Jewison's powerful choice (closer, no doubt to Peckinpah's).

With a huge, fine cast all delivering to-die-for performances, The Cincinnati Kid is a wonderful movie. Edward G. Robinson (who replaced an ailing Spencer Tracy) turns his role of the wise old poker hand into one of the screen's most memorable characters. Robinson commands every shot he's in with the sense of power, confidence and gentlemanly style the role demands.

Karl Malden, always the stalwart supporting player - deftly blends the attributes he was most gifted with: the almost pathetic sensitivity of his "Mitch" from A Streetcar Named Desire and the roiling conflict of love and nastiness he exuded as Anthony Perkins's father in Fear Strikes Out.

Of course, Rip Torn - surely one of the greatest screen actors of all time - weirdly chews the scenery with, I kid you not, restraint. There's not one likeable thing about the character he plays and yet, when he's on-screen, it's impossible to take one's eyes off him.

Two blasts from the past (even by 60s standards in the nostalgia sweepstakes) manage to add mega-wattage to Jewison's picture. I loved seeing Cab ("Minnie the Moocher") Calloway - so dashing, so stylish, so cool! And a thorough delight is getting ganders at the sashaying, ballsy Joan Blondell as the hottest, sexiest MILF who ever dealt a straight-up hand of poker. Throw in a snake pit of ferociously brilliant character actors like Jack Weston, Milton Selzer, Jeff Corey and the rest - down to even the extras and background players who always look like they belong in the film's world - and you have a picture that sizzles as hotly today as it did in the 60s.

It's a lollapalooza!

Jewison has every right to be proud of it.

As for Peckinpah's version, all we can do is dream about the movie that never was, but could have been. After his firing from the picture, Peckinpah's life spiralled downwards. According to actor-director L.Q. Jones in David Weddle's book:

"It totally destroyed him for a long time . . . nobody would hire him, so he couldn't make movies. That's like telling a preacher he can't go to church. That's Sam's church. So what do you do? You go to pieces, which is what he did."

But years afterwards, Peckinpah directed The Wild Bunch.

He found his way back again.

Movie fans in Toronto, Canada will have an opportunity to see "The Cincinnati Kid" on a big screen in 35mm on August 12 at TIFF Lightbox during the exciting upcoming Norman Jewison retrospective entitled "And Justice for All: The Films of Norman Jewison". If you absolutely can't wait (or sadly, have no way of seeing the movie on a big-screen), "The Cincinnati Kid" is available on Warners Home Entertainment. The Blu-ray is a stunning transfer and beautifully captures Jewison's mise-en-scene and Philip Lathrop's great cinematography. One of the fabulous special features is a commentary track from Norman Jewison. Uncle Norman delivers great commentary. Along with Martin Scorsese, I'd argue Jewison's director commentaries are the finest wrought on all home entertainment mediums. He's seldom anecdotal, never dull and always full of great material on the art of filmmaking.

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