Imagine you're Norman Jewison. You've been spending the first half of the decade as a director-for-hire, directing studio vehicles for Tony Curtis, James Garner and Doris Day. So far, it's a modest filmmaking career; indeed, it's the kind of career that usually befalls young filmmakers trying to get into Hollywood's big time. You're not exactly recognized as an artist at the moment, although you have made a friend in Sam Peckinpah, the breakthrough artist who crafted Ride the High Country -- one of the greatest Westerns ever made. There is some question as to whether or not you will ever achieve that level of success. Then Peckinpah is fired from a movie he has been working on with Steve McQueen, and suddenly you have been hired to replace him.
This is what was happening behind the scenes during the making of The Cincinnati Kid. Before Jewison came onboard, the end result was destined to be something completely different from what it is now. Peckinpah's original vision for The Cincinnati Kid was to shoot the film in black-and-white, and fill the story (in typical Peckinpah fashion) with visceral sequences of sex and violence. But Hollywood was not yet ready for Peckinpah's “fascist works of art” (as dubbed by Pauline Kael in her Straw Dogs review), and with Jewison replacing Peckinpah as director, Steve McQueen's next anti-heroic vehicle was about to become something more passive, less aggressive. Arguably, it ultimately became a better film.
Let me put it this way: wouldn't The Cincinnati Kid feel a lot like a rip-off of Robert Rossen's The Hustler if it had been shot in black and white? The stories of the two films are definitely similar: both are about hotshot sports talents who get in over their heads, womanize their female companions, are excruciatingly tested by their opponents and, tragically, manipulated by their own mentors. But The Hustler was a film about pool, whereas The Cincinnati Kid is about stud poker; and what was so wise about Jewison's decision to shoot The Cincinnati Kid in color instead of black-and-white was the fact that the many colors of red, yellow and green seen throughout the picture could then be illuminated to striking effect. Such memorable images as a glowing lamp fading to a golden blur, the provocative red dress of a girl in attendance at a cockfight, and the illustrated graphics of the actual poker cards, would never have endured if Jewison and his cinematographer, Philip H. Lathrop, had not been afforded the wonders of Metrocolor photography. To be sure, Jewison has fun with some shots that probably could have looked just as great as they do without color, from the camera's constant habit of peering through curtains (in doorways and on beds), to the startling transitional image of an antagonist pointing a gun straight at the camera (for the purpose of target practice).
The screenplay for the film, based on a novel by Richard Jessup, was originally written by Ring Lardner Jr.; when Jewison found it overly serious, he brought in Terry Southern to polish it up with more humor, particularly towards the monologues of the film's villains that threaten McQueen's protagonist. Jewison himself was responsible for the film's remarkable narrative framing device. The film begins with McQueen's character, the Kid (his real name is “Eric Stoner”, although he is rarely ever referred to by that name during the picture) passing through a lively African-American funeral in New Orleans. He is then approached by a beaming young African-American Shoeshine boy (Ken Grant), who challenges him to a quick game of penny-pitching on the sidewalk, and who will challenge him again in the middle of and at the end of the film.
“Hey, man, hey Cincinnati- come on, man!” exclaims the eager boy. “I'm gonna get you one more time! Come on, man!” We presume that the Kid and the boy have been at this before, and that the boy has always been unsuccessful in the past. The Kid consents, but of course, being the experienced poker player with the fast hand, he ends up winning. “You're just not ready for me, yet!” he reminds the boy. Normally this would be a crushing experience for a young child, but it is not: the little boy is filled with a sense of awe. In the course of this film, the characters will suffer a multitude of crushing disappointments and losses, but in this opening sequence between McQueen and the boy lies the film's ambition, as well as its undying love of the game. This scene is followed by a sequence in which the Kid ends up fleeing from thugs running a shady game of poker; we watch, exhilarated, as he beats the living heck out of the bad guy, runs across a platform spinning over a gorge (McQueen did this stunt himself), and dodges some moving trains on the way. Already, Jewison and McQueen have us intrigued.
The internal conflict of The Cincinnati Kid springs forward when poker legend Lancey Howard (an excellent Edward G. Robinson, who literally enters the picture through a cloud of steam) comes into town for a lunchtime poker game with the wealthy gangster Slade (a young, unrecognizable Rip Torn), who -- with his homely wife and children, menacing bodyguard and exotic mistress- doesn't seem like he necessarily needs to be wasting his money losing thousands at stud poker, but no matter. When the crusty old Lancey easily beats him in the lunchtime game, Slade vows revenge.
“I wanna see that smug old bastard gutted!” Slade hisses to his loyal dealer, Shooter (Karl Malden). He then informs Shooter of a nasty plan he is hatching: in the upcoming, much-anticipated game that will take place between Lancey and the Kid, Slade will bet on the Kid -- and, to ensure that things go his way, he wants Shooter to deal the game and secretly fix it so that the Kid wins. Shooter initially refuses, but then Slade blackmails him, reminding him that he's “carrying markers” on Shooter, while adding that he can always recognize his markers as “null and void, if I happen to suddenly realize that you are not of sound mind.”
The first hour of the film generally consists of the events leading up to the showdown between Lancey and the Kid. We meet the Kid's girlfriend, Christian (Tuesday Weld), who loves him and maybe even wants to marry him, but feels rather shut out by his poker addiction. Midway through the film is a sequence in which the Kid tries to show how much he cares about Christian by visiting her at her home in the country. In an ordinary film, this kind of sequence might have felt pointless, but there is a wonderful moment when the Kid impresses Christian's socially impaired parents (Karl Swenson and Irene Tedrow) with his card tricks, somewhat miraculously casting off the awkwardness of his being there. Even though the Kid isn't too charismatic a person, there's no doubt about it: he's got a hell of a way with cards.
Knowing that first Peckinpah and then Jewison were involved in the making of The Cincinnati Kid, it's astonishing that another future great filmmaker was also involved: Hal Ashby. At this point in the 1960's, Ashby was an editor, and his editing work on this film is- to put it mildly- sublime. It's the fast-paced last forty-five minutes of The Cincinnati Kid, crisply edited by Ashby and expertly crafted by Jewison, that everybody always remembers. These scenes are so captivating, and so thrilling, that one not even have to be familiar with the rules of stud poker (this writer included) in order to be entertained. We watch as inferior players such as Yeller (Cab Calloway) and Pig (Jack Weston) are forced to drop out of the game, one by one, until only Lancey and the Kid are left. And, of course, there is tension behind the scenes, as we realize that Shooter is under constant pressure by Slade and his gang to keep fixing the game in the Kid's favor. As we watch with some amusement at the silly, laid-back behavior of Lady Fingers (Joan Blondell), who usually switches off with Shooter as dealer, we can sense that Shooter only wishes he could be just as relaxed.
It doesn't help that the Kid is under some pressure of his own. For example, Shooter's flirtatious, puzzle-cheating wife Melba (Ann-Margaret) has got the hots for the Kid, and is continuously trying to steal him away from Christian; earlier in the film, Melba almost succeeds in tempting the Kid, until he gives her a good spanking for stepping out of line (only McQueen could make something as vicious as a spanking look sexy on-screen). Melba's advances are bizarre, considering that she's best friends with Christian, and also when considering that both girls share each other's boy problems on a daily basis. Melba complains that Shooter is too controlling and not a whole lot of fun, but Christian is not convinced. “At least you know how much you mean to somebody”, she sighs. The idea is that Christian's relationship with the Kid will improve eventually, but, sadly, it does not: during the poker climax, Christian comes to the game to show her support... only to find the Kid and Melba in bed together. In the film's final scene, the Kid and Christian reunite on the street after the game, but this cheap, unjustified “Hollywood ending” was forced into the film at the last minute, against Jewison's wishes.
For me, the best performance in the film is by Karl Malden, whose Shooter was unquestionably one of his finest post-On the Waterfront roles. As the film moves along, we actually feel more sorry for Shooter than we do for the Kid; even though the Kid is the one running the risk of losing his money, it is Shooter who is being held tight on a leash by his boss, forced to cooperate, perhaps even in danger of being whacked if things don't go as Slade has planned. Malden has a great scene in which he confronts the Kid in-between rounds, wanting to know why the Kid folded winners in the last hand. Then the Kid, already suspecting Shooter of foul play, grabs him and throws him against the wall. There is a real sense of fear in Shooter's eyes; Malden was reportedly stunned by McQueen's unexpected force. “Kid... you gotta understand,” he tries to explain, “...this wasn't my idea! Slade's got the squeeze on me! You think I wanna deal a phony hand? You think it don't mean something to me?” But the Kid doesn't sympathize with him: “I'm gonna win this game, Shooter! And I'm gonna win it my way! And you ride along with it, or you're out. You're finished!”
All of this is only a warm-up for the last remaining minutes of the poker game, during which Jewison raises the suspense to almost unbearable levels. It's that moment at which Lancey and the Kid each have only one overturned card left that is the most suspenseful moment of all; Ashby edits the sequence so that we see the various expressions of the spectators watching over the game, their faces enshrouded in shadow. The Kid has an ace of hearts, and thinks he's got Lancey right where he wants him. Then Lancey flips his card over, and... damn it all, it's a jack. The Kid jut sits there with a wide-eyed look of shock on his face; Lancey, meanwhile, happily puffs on his cigar, pleased to have beaten yet another potentially serious player. “You're good, Kid,” he cracks- in the way that only Edward G. Robinson could say it- “but as long as I'm around, you're second-best. You might as well learn to live with it.” As the Kid walks out the door, he thinks he's got a chance at redeeming himself with a final game of penny-pitching with the Shoeshine boy (who, hilariously, appears out of nowhere), but even this simple effort ends in vain. “You tried too hard, man!” pipes the boy, using the Kid's own lines against him. “You just ain't ready for me, yet!”
Listen to Jewison's priceless commentary track on the Special Edition DVD. One of the most interesting aspects of the production he reminisces over is his relationship with McQueen on the set. At first, the star was at odds with his director, and Jewison recalls incidents such as McQueen's bafflement at not being allowed to see the film's dailies, instead being told to concentrate on his own performance. “What are you trying to do, man- you tryin' to twist my mellon?” he allegedly snapped at Jewison at one point, in that hippy action-hero sort of way that McQueen usually talked in. Observing that McQueen was probably in need of a father figure, Jewison eventually came up with something of a peaceful resolution for his star. “Look, Steve, I'm not old enough to be your father,” he claims to have told McQueen, “but I can be you older brother, and I'll always look out for you... you just relax, and do your job- and I'll always protect you.” From then on, things were different between star and director.
Three years after The Cincinnati Kid, Jewison and McQueen made The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) together. On a technical level, it's a superior film, thanks to Pablo Ferro's split-screen imagery, Ashby's advanced editing style (perhaps improved thanks to his winning an Oscar for his editing on Jewison's In the Heat of the Night), and the infamous “chess with sex” sequence (innovatively shot by Laszlo Kovacs) between McQueen and Faye Dunaway. Yet for all of its stylistic accomplishments, The Thomas Crown Affair is awfully shallow in terms of narrative storytelling; if I prefer The Cincinnati Kid by comparison, it's because I cared about its characters more, and because McQueen and Jewison's healthy working relationship comes into stronger focus. On the DVD commentary for The Thomas Crown Affair, Jewison recalls visiting McQueen in the last months leading up to his death; McQueen had grown a caveman's beard by then, and a sort of "wild" expression was starting to grow in his eyes. It's amazing to wonder about the kind of film that they could have made together by the time McQueen was in that state of health and grace.
Think about the amazing effect that The Cincinnati Kid had on the filmmakers involved. In some ways, being fired from the film was one of the best things that ever happened to Sam Peckinpah- it allowed him to spend the next four years recuperating from the embarrassment, before reemerging with the masterwork that is The Wild Bunch. Ashby's editing career led him to further exceptional editing work until he transitioned into becoming one of the best filmmakers of his generation. But by the 1980's, Peckinpah and Ashby had both succumbed to drugs and alcohol, and both had dropped dead.
Fortunately for Jewison, he survived. His legacy, however, has yet to be as respected as that of his two deceased peers. Which is a curious matter, considering what many of his greatest films have in common. When the Kid is beaten at penny-pitching by the African-American boy at the end of The Cincinnati Kid, it is the budding scene in what would eventually flower into some of the most unforgettable sequences in some of Jewison's later films. Could it possibly, for example, have served as the spark for the landmark scene in In the Heat of the Night (1967) -- another film with a Ray Charles theme song -- in which Sidney Poitier slaps the white florist? Isn't this influence also felt during the scene in A Soldier's Story (1984) in which Howard E. Rollins fiercely questions a couple of racist white soldiers? Just as Sam Peckinpah and Hal Ashby once did, after a long and rewarding career in the movies, Norman Jewison has established himself as a born filmmaking artist -- and it all began with McQueen.