Cast & Crew
Edward G. Robinson
The Cincinnati Kid is king of the local stud poker players in New Orleans in the 1930's, but Lancey "The Man" Howard is the national champion. Howard comes to New Orleans for a private match with Slade, a wealthy local businessman, on whom he inflicts heavy losses. The Kid's friend Shooter, known for his honesty, is dealer for these private games and suggests a match between Howard and The Kid. Christian, The Kid's girl friend, leaves town to visit her parents. Slade, betting heavily on the match in an attempt to recoup his losses, puts pressure on Shooter to slip The Kid winning cards. The Kid learns of the machinations during the long game and, even though he could easily win, substitutes Lady Fingers for Shooter as dealer. Melba, Slade's wife, taking advantage of Christian's absence, starts an affair with The Kid during a break in the game. The climax of the match occurs when The Kid loses everything on a full house to Howard's straight flush. The Kid also loses Christian when she finds out about his affair with Melba. The Kid starts out again on the streets, playing for coins against a shoeshine boy but still retaining his honor.
Edward G. Robinson
George W. Davis
Ring Lardner Jr.
Philip H. Lathrop
The Cincinnati Kid
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
The Cincinnati Kid
The Cincinnati Kid on DVD
The Cincinnati Kid seemed destined for disaster, not popularity in its initial release and enduring quality 40 years later. Its very chequered production put it through all sorts of changes: director (Sam Peckinpah to Norman Jewison), location (the St. Louis of Richard Jessup's novel to New Orleans), one male lead (Spencer Tracy to Robinson), one female lead (Sharon Tate to Weld) and film process (black-and-white to color). In addition to credited screenwriters Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove) and Ring Lardner, Jr. (one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, making a return to the screen), screenplay drafts were also reportedly written by Paddy Chayefsky (Network) and Charles Eastman (Little Fauss and Big Halsy). I pity those who've given the movie a knee-jerk rejection because an "outlaw" director got canned and a more mundane director replaced him (though Jewison's best, this and In the Heat of the Night among them, rank with any of Peckinpah's). Producer Martin Ransohoff fired Peckinpah after a few days of shooting (in black-and-white), and there was a possibly trumped-up scandal over the shooting of a nude scene that contributed to Peckinpah not making another feature until 1969's The Wild Bunch. But anyone who blames Jewison's finished film for that is missing out on a sharp, smart movie (and, of course, Peckinpah and McQueen eventually worked together in 1972's Junior Bonner and The Getaway).
Eric Stoner, a/k/a The Kid, adds a bittersweet edge to the men of action McQueen had played in his breakthrough roles in such physical movies as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. The scrape The Kid gets into at the beginning of The Cincinnati Kid, when he has a switchblade pulled on him by an inferior player he's just beaten, was reportedly written into the movie at the actor's insistence, but this is still a more contemplative McQueen hero than usual, and the restraint serves the movie well. Minimalism in performance is what McQueen was all about, and the fact that he can still be a man of action here without shooting a gun or jumping a motorcycle adds another element to his onscreen persona. As with Robert Mitchum in Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men, Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave or McQueen himself in Tom Horn, the combination of virile leading man and quiet, contemplative story leads to a melancholy you don't often get in these actors' films.
As with many actual westerns, much is made of honor in The Cincinnati Kid. To The Kid, beating Robinson's Lancey Howard isn't just a matter of outfoxing him at cards. It also means assuming his position of dignity and fulfilling his destiny. It means being "The Man." Being "The Man" doesn't just mean being top dog, it also means carrying the burden of being everyone's target. Whether The Kid is ready to mentally mature into being "The Man" is a big issue here, in his and everyone else's head. Unlike Paul Newman's Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler, the movie's obvious precursor, The Kid is not a classless jerk. He's a natural whose talent is matched only by his confidence. Part of what makes the movie so interesting is that it doesn't set up The Kid for a fist-pumping winner-takes-all victory, nor does it maneuver him into a tragic come-uppance. It's not that simple. The Kid makes wise moves at the card table, and an unwise move or two away from it (like betraying Weld's Christian by sleeping with Ann-Margret's Melba). And, true to the script's complexities, as the story works towards the final hand of the showdown between The Kid and Lancey, the results are unpredictable and the resolution somewhat open-ended.
Jewison and the writers fill in a contentious world of gamblers and gaming around the kid, where psychological one-upsmanship and beating the other fellow are the way of the world, whether it's in poker, betting, cockfights, chess or pitching pennies. They populate this world with a very distinctive mix of new faces like McQueen, Ann-Margret, Weld and Rip Torn (as a conniving socialite with a grudge against Lancey), such older pros as Robinson, Karl Malden, Joan Blondell and Cab Calloway and a truckload of valuable character actors. At a time when character actors with great faces were starting to be seen more on television than in movies, The Cincinnati Kid harkens back to the decade in which it's set for its appreciation of a memorable face and a well-turned bit part. Such character-acting scene-stealers as Burt Mustin, Dub Taylor, Jeff Corey, Jack Weston, Milton Selzer, Robert DoQui and Theo Marcuse all pop up in the movie, and add to its color.
Jewison's audio commentary on the DVD of The Cincinnati Kid goes into detail about how he shaped the movie in the two weeks between being hired and restarting filming. Switching to color, bringing in Southern to punch up the dialogue and shooting exteriors in New Orleans were part of that shaping. An amusing bit of information Jewison imparts involves card expert Jay Ose, the technical advisor seen on the included vintage promo short The Cincinnati Kid Plays According to Hoyle. It turns out Ose provided the hands of not only Malden during close-ups of cards being dealt, but also, thanks to nail polish and powder, of Blondell, too.
Jewison mentions one struggle he lost to MGM brass, in which he was forced to tack on a final image to the movie that puts a sunnier twist on his intended resolution. Apparently, Jewison is unaware that by happy accident, presumably, that's the ending that was on most, if not all, VHS versions of the movie. For once, maybe the completeness of a DVD has a bad side to it, too, as the full version here includes that last shot Jewison dislikes.
The disc's extras also include intentional and unintentional levity. The unintentional is the movie's trailer, in which the voice-over narration starts with the dreaded phrase "In a world," a full 25 years before it became a raging Hollywood cliche. The intentional comes during the scene-specific second audio commentary featuring poker pro Phil Gordon and Dave Foley. When I saw them listed on the disc case, I assumed the second was not Dave Foley from Kids in the Hall and News Radio, but it is. Apparently, he's a regular on the celebrity poker cable series Gordon is on (and makes no claims to being an expert himself, just to adding comic relief). This commentary offers interesting observations about the onscreen poker games but, amazingly, in its 47 minutes Foley never once mentions the Kids in the Hall sketch that references The Cincinnati Kid. The odds that Foley would actually be on an audio commentary for the movie, and then forget to even mention that sketch, have to be even greater than the odds of Lancey drawing a straight flush.
To order The Cincinnati Kid, click here. To order the Blu-ray, click here.
by Paul Sherman
The Cincinnati Kid on DVD
You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around, you're only second best.- Lancey Howard
Melba, why do you do that?- Shooter
So it'll fit, stupid.- Melba
No, I'm not talking about that. What I'm asking is... do you, uh, have to cheat at everything?- Shooter
At everything?- Melba
Yes. At... solitaire. I've yet to see you play one game of solitaire without cheating.- Shooter
Hey, why are you doing this? It can't be for money.- Shooter
Yes, for my kind of money, gut money. I wanta to see that smug old bastard gutted. Gutted!- Slade
Like he gutted you.- Shooter
Yes, that's right, that's right!- Slade
Gets down to what it's all about, doesn't it? Making the wrong move at the right time.- Lancey Howard
Is that what it's all about?- Cincinnati Kid
Like life, I guess. You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around you're second best. You might as well learn to live with it.- Lancey Howard
Listen, Christian, after the game, I'll be The Man. I'll be the best there is. People will sit down at the table with you, just so they can say they played with The Man. And that's what I'm gonna be, Christian.- Cincinnati Kid
I know.- Christian
Director Sam Peckinpah insisted on shooting a nude scene for this film featuring one of the female extras. He claimed that this scene would only be included in the European release of the movie. Producer Martin Ransohoff eventually fired Peckinpah after it was discovered that Peckinpah intended using the nude scene in the US print as well.
The extra who was to appear nude was star-to-be Sharon Tate. She disappeared from the film along with Peckinpah.
Spencer Tracy was originally cast but in the end declined the role and was replaced by Edward G. Robinson.
Sam Peckinpah, originally slated to direct the film, was replaced shortly after shooting began. It is not known how much, if any, of his footage is in the film.
Released in United States Fall October 15, 1965
Released in United States October 2000
Norman Jewison replaced Sam Peckinpah as director after production on the film began.
Released in United States October 2000 (Shown at AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival (Special Screening) October 19-26, 2000.)
Released in United States Fall October 15, 1965