Cincinnati Kid (1965) from Silver Dollar Sam

(Note: Silver Dollar Sam is the professional gambler and raconteur who writes

It’s a good film.  I see all the charm I missed the first time around. I saw this movie when it came out in 1965, and I came away disgusted.  It ignored table stakes, and the reigning stud champion won the decisive hand by beating aces full with a straight flush.  With these absurdities, I didn’t think cinema was doing a good job of representing poker but, of course, there is more to the movie than that.

The movie was released in October, 1965 so it could be among the late year elite cinema offerings and it got everyone’s attention because it was the first to really examine the poker world. 

The script by Ring Lardner, Jr. and others is adopted from the book by Richard Jessup, and the film is directed by Norman Jewison.  The movie has an array of fine actors including Steve McQueen in the title role of The Kid, Edward G. Robinson as “the Man”, Rip Torn, Joan Blondell, Tuesday Weld, Ann-Margret, Karl Malden, Jack Weston, Cab Calloway, and more. 

The Cincinnati Kid doesn’t play poker in Cincinnati, he plays poker in New Orleans.  As the movie begins, we see automobiles no younger than those made in 1936 and we think, the movie will tell its story in the 1930s.  But we are wrong.  Soon the Kid is chased across 1965 railroad tracks with 1965 trains on them.  The clothes and hair designs are also 1965 and we are somehow suddenly transferred from the thirties to the year the film was made. 

New Orleans is a film maker’s delight and no filming there is complete without rain, a jazz funeral parade, narrow streets, second story overhangs, mansard roofs and an old graveyard.  All are present in the The Cincinnati Kid. 

Since the French Quarter, by city ordinance, is not permitted to change with time, it would have been easy for Jewison to continue the 1930s period and I was disappointed he did not.  The house, hotel and apartment furnishings were old.  The scenes were shot mostly in studios.  The director had already shown the vintage automobiles.  All he had to do was change the clothes and the hair styles in order to gain a solid thirties illusion. 

But the movie is special, not only for the poker, but for other reasons as well.  Rip Torn is shown in bed with a black woman, Steve McQueen is buddies with a black card player, Cab Calloway is a player at the table.  These things were new, bold, and welcomed by the public in 1960s film making.

Markers are big in the movie.  They are IOUs made by gamblers and are considered honorable debts to be paid even before baby gets a new pair of shoes.  Markers again reflect a different time in poker than the sixties; they were prevalent in the thirties.  They were issued by a loser when a bet couldn’t be covered.  It isn’t clear in the movie what would happen if the player with the money didn’t accept the loser’s marker.  Does the player with the money then win the hand by default? 

The custom of accepting markers, and the custom’s obvious shortcomings, were replaced in later years by establishing “table stakes”, no money on or off the table during play and, if the player couldn’t cover the bet, he covered what he could and that’s all he could win.  The table stakes rule was deeply in effect by the 1960s, especially in games among top players.  Since markers play a big role in the story, couldn’t we just have kept this film in the 1930s? 

There are markers all over the place in this film, most of them held by The Kid.  In fact, there are so many markers held by The Kid, he can’t play in most of the local poker games because all he’d be winning is more markers. 

The Kid (Steve McQueen) is the top player in New Orleans and The Man (Edward G. Robinson) is coming to town.  The Man has long been considered the best five card stud player in the land.  The Kid must play The Man, much the same as Fast Eddie must play Minnesota Fats in The Hustler.  Shooter (Karl Malden) says to The Man, “You want to play The Kid?”  The Man says, “There’s always a kid, isn’t there?” 

This is also from The Man: “To the true gambler, money is not the end in itself.  It’s merely a tool, as language is for thought.” 

After the date for the big game is set, the movie sags in the middle while we wait.  The Kid and his girlfriend split, but we really don’t care about this tepid relationship.  We’re just waiting for the big contest. 

Nevertheless, The Kid takes a 1960s bus to a 1930s farm to see his girlfriend.  She fixes him something to eat on the 1930s wood burning stove with its “warmer” and The Kid entertains her parents with a couple of card tricks.  And that (ho hum) is how Jewison added footage and time where he needed it. 

All the poker scenes are well filmed.  They look real and are played real; the actors are very convincing.  One of the things we notice is the early hands are won by jack high over ten high and other such simple differences common in five stud.  However, in the hands played by The Man in another poker game before he meets The Kid, the winning hands have been increased from ace high to two pair winning over another two pair, and then, as the story progresses, moved up again to three of a kind over another set of trips.  As the story and the drama build, the value of the hands gets higher. 

We’re a little confused by Shooter (Karl Malden).  He is chosen to deal the big game because he has a reputation of honesty.  He is the stodgy, beleaguered man with the cheating wife.  How straight is he?  Well, he plays, “Just the percentages.  Don’t win much, don’t lose much.”  Yet he is the card manipulator who can’t be spotted cheating.  “I’m too good a mechanic,” he says.  Is this consistent?

Now it’s time for the big game.  The tension builds.  We honestly don’t know who is going to win this championship. 

There are other players, besides the two major contenders, at the table.  “People sit down at the table with you so they can say they played with The Man.”  (This kind of participation still goes on today.)  Before this final table scene, Jewison has allowed only two or so of his acting bunch in a scene at the same time.  When all of them sit down together at the table, we are impressed.  They have a decided screen presence.  We know this will be a helluva game.

After the rest of the players are broke or tired, or both, the game settles down to The Kid and The Man.  The Man has already taken money out of his jacket pocket during the play of a hand and The Kid gets money from off the table in the play of another hand.  And, even though these things were permitted, during both occasions I squirmed in my chair.

In the last and deciding hand, The Man moves The Kid all-in and takes his marker for $5,000.  The suspense has been built well and we’re on the edge of our seats.  The Kid’s aces full will be beaten by The Man’s straight flush.  It fits the drama, but it will always be objected to by stud poker players everywhere.

The Man calls the biggest series of betting in the game to draw to a straight flush while he’s looking at The Kid’s obvious two pair.  Actually, it wouldn’t have mattered in the hand if The Kid only had a pair of aces.  But The Kid’s full house on the last card, while losing to a straight flush, serves to effectively add to the drama



VHS info from Amazon

not available on DVD

This much will always be true.  The Man makes one of the worst poker plays in cinema poker history and easily one of the luckiest plays.  And The Man is much too smug about it.
Scoop's notes in yellow:

I gotta tell ya that this movie is way overrated.

The obvious problem with the big game is that Lancey (Edward G Robinson) bet pretty much his entire wad drawing to a straight flush in five-card stud when his opponent had him beat all the way. I don't think you get to be the world's richest poker player with moves like that.  That's what we used to call "a fish" back in college. Sure a fish sometimes pulls a massive pot out of his ass, but the longer he plays, the more he loses. Seems to me that this is a time to "know when to fold 'em."

Before the final card was dealt, with Cincinnati holding two pairs and The Man drawing to an inside straight flush, the odds were already better than 5 to 2 in the kid's favor. But when Cincinnati pulled a full house, Lancey could no longer have won with a straight or a flush, so only one card in the entire deck could have given him the win. He pulled it. Most poker players have probably played their entire lives without drawing a straight flush in five card stud. How often is the betting light enough that you can afford to stay in all the way on a drawing hand? So how could it happen when your opponent has a killer hand and is betting his ass off?  Maybe ol' Silver Dollar Sam has played so many hands that he's had a few straight flushes in five stud, but I never have. If you play 100 hands a day for two straight years, and draw out every hand to completion, the chances are you'll draw only one straight flush. But that isn't really the whole point. Let's take the whole situation into account. What are the chances that when you get that straight flush in a two man game, your opponent will have a full house, thus guaranteeing that you will win his entire bankroll? Oh, only about 45 million to one. Big numbers don't mean much to most people, so here's another way to look at it. If the Cincinnati Kid and The Man were immortal men playing 100 hands of five card stud every day from the time of the Norman Invasion in 1066 until now, they would still be waiting for this to happen. At 36,500 hands per year, it would happen about once every 1200 years - but only if every hand played out to the full five cards! In reality, most of the opportunities for this situation to happen would die in the early betting, with the drawing hand folding in the face of massive betting.

To tell you the truth, however, the poker scenes are very well orchestrated, so much so that even Silver Dollar Sam didn't object very strenuously to the fact that Lancey won by playing poorly and lucking out on a long shot! The poker scenes are exciting and atmospheric. They are good cinema, even if they are bad poker. It's a great moment when the cool, cerebral McQueen faces down the very civilized old pro under a decorative Tiffany lampshade, then loses because the old veteran is just cagey enough to know when a long shot might pay off big.

No, that was pretty cool.

The problem in the film lies in every minute when they are not playing poker. Sam hit on it all pretty well in his review. The innocent girlfriend, the girlfriend's rural family, the sleazy babe who seduces McQueen and gets sexually aroused by a cockfight -- all just filler, and not very good filler at that. And when the hell did this movie take place? With characteristics of different eras juxtaposed confusingly, it is the Dirty Dancing of poker films.

Personally, I have a hard time with the clumsy editing of many films from this period, this one included. Somebody who is framed in the shot asks a question. Then the camera sets up again over his shoulder to get the response of the other character. The second person answers much too late, relative to the natural timing of speech. In real life, this kind of delay happens only when the answer requires thought, or if the respondent is distracted by something else, but in these 50s and 60s era movies, it seems to happen in every exchange, no matter how mundane.

At the time, that kind of pacing was considered an important step toward realism. If you recall, the films of the 30s always featured people making their comebacks much too quickly and wittily relative to natural speech. Clark Gable would ask Claudette Colbert a question, and as the last syllable was still barely off his lips, she would already be firing back a sassy and clever response, not even pausing to listen to the entire question, as she would have had to do if movies existed in our own reality. Well, yeah, that was artificial, but so was the deliberate antithesis of that favored by the 50s and 60s, in which the lumpy Karl Malden guy would ask the cool guy a simple question like "where's Billy?", whereupon Brando or James Dean would stroke his chin or eat some food on camera, or furrow his brow, or mutter unintelligibly for a while before revealing Billy's whereabouts, as if ol' Karl had just asked him to solve a knotty calculus problem or evaluate Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

Steve McQueen, however, was a mighty cool guy, even when making those unnecessary pauses. He was much cooler and far more masculine than Brando or Dean, and he held his grimacing down to the minimum required by the Method Actor's Code.

Didja know this film was originally to have been directed by Sam Peckinpah? Imagine how different that might have been!  Producer Martin Ransohoff fired Peckinpah four days after shooting started because he was "vulgarizing the picture." Word on the street was that Peckinpah was insisting on a nude scene for this film. (Peckinpah claimed that this scene would only be included in the European release of the movie.) The nude scene was to be played by a former playmate named Sharon Tate, whose manager was none other than the same Martin Ransohoff, who didn't think the scene was in his client's best interest. After that dismissal, Ransohoff put out the word in the industry that Peckinpah was not a good soldier, and Sam couldn't get a real directing job for many years.

Sharon Tate, of course, later became famous for marrying Roman Polanski. Then, sadly, she became much more famous when she and her unborn baby were killed by the Manson Family.

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The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.)

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