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The story of a brash young gambler who challenges the undisputed king of the poker gaming tables in New Orleans, The Cincinnati Kid (1965) had a storyline similar to The Hustler (1961), which pitted an up-and-coming pool shark (Paul Newman) against billiard legend Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). It afforded rising star Steve McQueen the opportunity to capitalize on his screen image as a rebellious loner and it SHOULD HAVE established Sam Peckinpah as a major director. Instead, it temporarily sidetracked his Hollywood career.
Initially, the proposed collaboration between executive producer Martin Ransohoff and Peckinpah looked promising. According to David Weddle in his biography, If They Move...Kill 'Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, "when Ransohoff began looking around for a director for Cincinnati Kid, his co-producer, John Calley, urged him to screen Ride the High Country . He did and was impressed. "I thought that The Cincinnati Kid had the feel of a western," say Ransohoff, "and felt that Sam would give that kind of feel to it. I was interested in doing a gunfight with a deck of cards; The Cincinnati Kid was almost a romantic western."
From the very beginning, though, it was a troubled production. First, the novel's original location of St. Louis was changed to the more colorful French Quarter section of New Orleans. The screenplay also went through several treatments, starting with Paddy Chayefsky's first pass, followed by another attempt by Ring Lardner, Jr. and eventually reaching the screen with credits going to Terry Southern and Charles Eastman. Steve McQueen, though ideal for the title role, was particularly demanding. He insisted on doing his own stunts and felt the movie needed at least one fight sequence. When he was first told Paddy Chayefsky was writing the script, he reportedly said, "Tell Paddy when he's writing that I'm much better walking than I am talking."
Casting for the rest of the film was more problematic and Spencer Tracy, originally slated to play Lancey Howard, dropped out at the last minute over salary requirements despite his reported interest in working with Peckinpah. As a replacement, they were able to hire Edward G. Robinson, who got to play some scenes with his former Warner Brothers co-star Joan Blondell (It was their first role together since Bullets or Ballots in 1936). While Robinson, Blondell and the rest of the supporting cast were approved by Peckinpah, he was opposed to both Ann-Margret and Sharon Tate as the female leads and argued against their casting. Ransohoff, who reportedly was having an affair with Tate, eventually relented and replaced her with Tuesday Weld but he refused to fire Ann-Margret. The creative differences between the two men soon reached an impasse.
Biographer David Weddle wrote that "Ransohoff thought the center of the story was the soap-opera love triangle that the other writers had constructed under his supervision. (The Kid is torn between the love for a "good" woman and his lust for a "bad" one.) But much to his consternation, Peckinpah began to turn the focus away from that and concentrate more on the harsh landscape the Kid inhabited (New Orleans during the Depression), on the cold-bloodedness of his profession and its effect on his personality. He even told his producer that he wanted to shoot it in black and white. "I warned him that I didn't want total realism, I wanted something that would be a licorice stick, popcorn," says Ransohoff."
After only four days of shooting, Peckinpah was fired from the production for creative differences. Ransohoff, whose grasp of popular entertainment was reflected by the immensely successful TV series he produced (Mister Ed (1961-66), The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71), Petticoat Junction (1963-70), and The Addams Family (1964-66), immediately hired Norman Jewison to direct and filming proceeded smoothly without any more major obstacles. Surprisingly enough, when The Cincinnati Kid went into release, it proved to be one of MGM's biggest hits of the year.
Despite its financial success, The Cincinnati Kid almost marked the end of Peckinpah's directing career. According to Ransohoff, the real reason Peckinpah was fired was for spending an inordinate amount of time shooting a scene involving a nude extra and co-star Rip Torn. The out-of-work director was shocked to read Ransohoff's comments later in Variety which were a complete distortion of the truth. Ransohoff was actually the one who wanted to push the envelope with several racy scenes and the director was just following orders. Nevertheless, Peckinpah was branded a troublemaker and many Hollywood insiders took the side of Ransohoff. Columnist Sheila Graham came to the producer's defense, writing that things were "going too far when a director...films a nude scene for his own amusement." The end result was that Peckinpah didn't work again until the end of the decade when he gambled even more of his professional reputation on The Wild Bunch (1969), a landmark Western that garnered international critical acclaim and criticism for its extreme violence.
But a few reputations did emerge intact after the release of The Cincinnati Kid, namely Steve McQueen's and Edward G. Robinson's. For McQueen, the film was just one more success in a lucky streak that began with The Magnificent Seven (1960) and hit another peak with The Great Escape (1963). It also earned him the praise of his co-star Robinson, who said, "He comes out of the tradition of Gable, Bogie, Cagney, and even me-but he's added his own dimension. He is a stunner..." As for Eddie G., The Cincinnati Kid afforded him yet another opportunity to prove that, despite his age, he was still at the top of his game. In his autobiography, All My Yesterdays, Robinson wrote: "In the film I played Lancey Howard, the reigning champ of the stud poker tables...I could hardly say I identified with Lancey; I was Lancey. That man on the screen, more than in any other picture I ever made, was Edward G. Robinson with great patches of Emanuel Goldenberg [his real name] showing through. He was all cold and discerning and unflappable on the exterior; he was aging and full of self-doubt on the inside....Even the final session of the poker game was real...I played that game as if it were for blood. It was one of the best performances I ever gave on stage or screen or radio or TV, and the reason for it is that is wasn't a performance at all; it was symbolically the playing out of my whole gamble with life."
Producer: John Calley, Martin Ransohoff
Director: Norman Jewison
Screenplay: Ring Lardner, Jr., Terry Southern
Art Direction: Edward C. Carfagno, George W. Davis
Cinematography: Philip H. Lathrop
Costume Design: Donfeld
Film Editing: Hal Ashby
Original Music: Lalo Schifrin
Principal Cast: Steve McQueen (The Cincinnati Kid), Edward G. Robinson (Lancey Howard), Ann-Margret (Melba), Karl Malden (Shooter), Tuesday Weld (Christian), Joan Blondell (Lady Fingers), Rip Torn (William Jefferson Slade), Jack Weston (Pig), Cab Calloway (Yeller), Jeff Corey (Hoban), Karl Swenson (Mr. Rudd).
C-103m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Scott McGee