by Alexander Huls Wednesday August 3, 2011

THE CINCINNATI KID has the reputation of being one of the best – if not the best – poker movie of all time. If THE HUSTLER is pool players’ cinematic bible, then THE CINCINNATI KID is the same for those who player poker. That reputation led me to expect Norman Jewison’s breakthrough film to be a light weight “inside-baseball” exercise that did little more than entertaining through its celebration of the thrills of the game.

There’s no doubt watching the tension play out as The Kid takes on The Man at the poker table is incredibly entertaining (and capable of making even the manliest and coolest of men get a little insecure). More than anything though I was surprised to discover that THE CINCINNATI KID is not just worthwhile on the level of being a poker film, but that it’s on another level a much more richer and deeper character piece
 
Most of all what struck me is how Norman Jewison and the film seem less interested in the game of poker itself, but more so the people who play the game. Specifically how the game impacts them and how those players form their own insulated society – complete with its own language, culture, customs, codes and rules. It’s a society where everyone’s day-to-day is consumed with poker (nobody seems to have a day job) and though certainly there is money to be gained, these players approach the game with a higher purity As Shooter (Karl Malden) tells Slade (Rip Torn), money in poker is a tool, like language is to thought.
 
It’s perhaps a principle that is so consuming it leaves room for little else – in particular love – if you consider how Eric Stoner (Steve McQueen) can readily commit to card games and fellow “society” members but struggles to commit to the loving Christian (Tuesday Weld), i.e. an outsider, a farm girl and potential distraction. That is nothing to say of Shooter whose relationship with wife Melba (Ann-Margret) would fit nicely into an Edward Albee play, Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson) who seems to have given up women all together, and Slade who frequents prostitutes.
 
In that sense it’s almost as if poker is to these men as religion is to priests. Poker’s dogma not only consumes their lives by leaving no room for anything else, but their loyal practice of it even influences the way they see the world. They don’t just live poker, they live by it – right down the fact that their lives take on elements of the game itself.
 
Melba is shuffled around between Stoner and Shooter like a card in a deck, and Stoner initial unconsummated flirtation with Melba is not unlike the common confident table talk and bluffing found at a poker table. When he does sleep with her, he does so with the same callous determination and vengeance of one poker player looking to clean out his opponent for everything he has. Even when Stoner meets Christian’s parents, it’s cut just like the poker game at the end of the film, seeming to indicate that even something as mundane as meeting the parents can only be understood by someone like Stoner in the context of poker (and really, isn’t his ice-breaking joke little more than a bluff to trick Christian’s dad into liking him?).
 
Norman Jewison is, of course, not just interested in how poker influences and consumes those who play it. Let’s not forget that the world of poker in THE CINCINNATI KID is also very much a world of men, and as such, this is also very much a movie about men – hell, it has to be, it stars Steve McQueen. It’s about how men relate to each other, how men relate to women, and how men relate to themselves.
 
But it’s also about men who stand for something. In many ways, that is the very core of this movie. THE CINCINNATI KID is one of those classically cool Hollywood movies where masculinity is all about principles, honor, fighting the good fight, winning life on your own terms, the little guy taking on the big guy, and if you fall down and fail you pick yourself right back up again. In other words, exactly the kind of ideas that would go on to center and drive almost every single one of Norman Jewison’s subsequent films.
 
In that sense, it’s almost as if THE CINCINNATI KID is Jewison’s declaration of intention. After all, this was his first film outside the studio system where he was directing lightweight Doris Day comedies that failed to provide him with the opportunity to explore the sorts of themes and issues he was interested in. CINCINNATI was his change to prove he could entertain without sacrificing depth and meaning. Watching the film it’s hard not to feel you’re watching a movie by a director with not only something to prove but something to say. Granted, hindsight over Jewison’s extensive career helps, but you do feel watching this movie as if he is announcing: “This is what I am interested in, this is what I want to talk about and explore.”
 
That even extends to the obvious hints of Jewison’s desire to tackle racial equality and acceptance, whether it be little moments like Rip Torn sleeping with a black prostitute, card player Philly (Robert DoQui) beating a white man and being treated as an equal, or bigger moments like the fantastic opening that never veers into reducing the parade to the novelty of otherness, but instead lovingly highlights its remarkable celebration of life, dance and culture.
 
In the end, sure, THE CINCINNATI KID functions on the level of just being a fantastic film. It has gorgeous cinematography that really bring out the wet and the dripping-with-sex setting of New Orleans, it’s loaded with palpable style and coolness, it’s highly entertaining with its poker set pieces, and it has fantastic acting that make you incredibly grateful someone thought to let Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson and Karl Malden grace the screen together.
 
What truly elevated the film for me however beyond just being a great movie is its depth, its thematic ambitions, and how as an artifact of Jewison’s half-a-century in the film industry it so confidently foreshadows his confidence, talent and deeper interests in society and those who inhabit them.
 
Throughout his career Norman Jewison seems to have always aimed to make movies entertaining and meaningful. That tradition and lifelong mission began with THE CICINNATI KID.

For those of you have seen THE CINCINNATI KID, what are your thoughts? Do you enjoy it only for its poker, or do you enjoy how it goes deeper? Do you even feel it goes as deep as I wrote above? Sound off below!