Sunday, April 21, 2024

Charismatic Steve McQueen is ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ 1965

Steve McQueen tries to keep his cool as "The Cincinnati Kid."

There were many talented hands involved with the poker playing epic, 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid. However, Steve McQueen is the winner, in the title role. McQueen isn’t just cool, but also effortlessly natural and emotionally understated as the man who has something to prove.

Like Paul Newman, Steve McQueen knew the power of his piercing blue eyes.

A common criticism of The Cincinnati Kid is that Paul Newman’s The Hustler from 1961 is a much more powerful story. That should go without saying. To me, the similarities between the two films are superficial:  both title characters struggle to make a name in their game; both are going up against a veteran champ in their respective sport. Otherwise, the movies are apples and oranges: Newman’s film is a stark, realistic black and white drama; McQueen’s movie is a stylish, colorful crowd-pleaser. The Hustler is a classic; The Cincinnati Kid is great entertainment and holds up well 50 years later.

A smile from the usually laconic Steve McQueen, as "The Cincinnati Kid."

I’ve only seen a few of Steve McQueen’s films because many of them are genre flicks. However, from what I’ve seen, I’m always knocked out by McQueen’s naturalistic performances. As The Cincinnati Kid, Steve’s card player is tough, but only when he has to be. Though he has ethereal Tuesday Weld and erotic Ann-Margret in his thrall, McQueen’s bad boy truly only wants Weld. When he strays once with A-M, he sees that it’s a mistake. In the typical male star vehicle, it’s a given that the hero can beat up any man and bed every female in sight. Steve McQueen differed from his greatest competitor, Paul Newman. Growing up, I always thought of them as the same type. While McQueen’s beat-up good looks and blue eyes are irresistible, Steve was no male beauty like Paul. I like Steve’s style during the ‘60s, much more than Newman’s cocky anti-hero. McQueen reminds me of an updated version of Bogart and Garfield. The final scene where the Kid admits that he’s done, tonelessly matter of fact, is just one of many understated moments by Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid.

The scene when Steve McQueen's "Cincinnati Kid" quietly admits defeat is powerful.

Edward G. Robinson’s performance as veteran gambler Lancey Howard is one of his best—and one of Eddie’s most restrained. Nicknamed “The Man,” Howard knows that “The Kid” is coming down the pike. When Howard rolls into New Orleans, he’s like visiting royalty. I love watching Robinson as Lancey, like a Cheshire cat, taking everything in with great stillness. His poker face is quite entertaining, contrasted with those half-asleep eyes that miss nothing. After a game with a sore loser of a rich man, a game is set up that includes The Man and The Kid. During that third act poker game, Robinson gets to genially spar with former WB co-star Joan Blondell, and his interaction with younger star McQueen is understated and riveting. Eddie was quoted that he admired McQueen, that he was a throwback to the WB stars like himself, Bogie, Cagney, and Garfield. Robinson was totally right.

"I'm still the top stud poker player, see?" Edward G. Robinson as Lancey Howard
aka The Man in 1965's "The Cincinnati Kid."

What a shame that Edward G. Robinson didn't get an Oscar nod for his subtle, dryly humorous performance. This and his final turn as Sol in 1973’s Soylent Green were most worthy for Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination consideration. The fact that Eddie got zero Oscar nominations in his film career is one of the Academy’s blindest blunders.

One-time WB stars Edward G. Robinson & Joan Blondell reunited as a card shark
& card dealer in 1965's "The Cincinnati Kid."

Aside from Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret, and Tuesday Weld, with their modern style, there's a lot of period detail for a ‘60s movie that wasn't a costume picture. McQueen has his designer hair cut, but his clothes are timeless, except for that cool rain jacket in the opening scenes. And Weld’s hair is very ‘60s hippie chick, but she’s otherwise in character. Then there’s Ann-Margret as Shooter’s young wife, Melba. I like A-M overall as an actress and she seems like a class act as a person. But her shallow kitten with a whip gets old really fast. Compared to the natural performances and physical appearance of the rest of the cast, Annie’s tidal wave of dyed red hair, awning-sized false lashes, and her purring/hissing cat in heat act stands out in the wrong way. Totally ‘60s in a ‘30s set movie, Ann-Margret’s performance is ironically the one thing that is dated in an otherwise authentically atmospheric film.

Ann-Margret as Melba the Cat? As Karl Malden's faithless wife, Melba even cheats
at jigsaw puzzles! From 1965's "The Cincinnati Kid."

Tuesday Weld’s Christian, a country girl in New Orleans, is her quirky, child-like self. But as the good girl to Ann-Margret’s vamp, Weld has a more genuine rapport with McQueen’s character. The Kid’s bathtub scene, when Christian explains a foreign movie that she’s just seen is one example of their charming interplay.

Tuesday Weld & Steve McQueen have a sweet rapport in 1965's "The Cincinnati Kid."

The cast of The Cincinnati Kid is simply incredible. Karl Malden is a flawed good guy, Shooter, coerced into cutting the cards in the Kid’s favor, because of debts incurred by his trampy wife, Melba. Malden’s empathetic, as always. Rip Torn, of the John Cassavetes/Ben Gazzara department of creeps, is the poor sport money man who wants the Kid to take down reigning ancey. Joan Blondell has her likeable broad routine down pat by now as card dealer Lady Fingers. All the actors get their moment to shine: Jack Weston as grouchy Pig; plus Jeff Corey, Dub Taylor, Cab Calloway, Karl Swenson, Milton Selzer, and Burt Mustin. Uncredited but remarkable is Ken Grant as the little shoeshine boy who always wants to challenge the Cincinnati Kid in a penny pitch.

Ken Grant is winning as the shoe shine boy who dogs "The Cincinnati Kid."

The shoe shine boy who idolizes and challenges "The Cincinnati Kid," 1965.

The movie’s tight yet intriguing visual style is courtesy of director Norman Jewison, editor (future director) Hal Ashby, and versatile cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop (Touch of Evil and Point Blank). Jewison was an actor’s director who was also a great storyteller and it shows here. The story, though it revolves around cards, is really about what the stakes are for these characters in the game. You notice every character, even if they are only reacting to the major players, a hallmark of a Jewison movie.

Director Norman Jewison at right, listening to his star, Steve McQueen, on the set of
 "The Cincinnati Kid." Tuesday Weld is in the middle of the talk.

The Cincinnati Kid was from a novel by Richard Jessup, a writer with a tough upbringing, similar to star Steve McQueen. Sadly, both men died young, two years apart, from cancer. The crisp and humorous script is by old pro Ring Lardner, Jr., first time off the black list, and newcomer Terry Southern, who came into his own in the ‘60s. Lalo Schifrin provides the score, with Ray Charles singing the theme song.

An amused beef from me: Why didn't Jewison reshoot the scene where McQueen throws Malden up against the door, after the Kid finds out Shooter is favoring him with the cards? When Steve slams Karl, the entire wall wobbles!

Rip Torn, so good at playing villains, is rich SOB Slade in "The Cincinnati Kid."

Some movie critics and film fans have complained about card games as a subject matter and the impossible odds of The Kid and The Man’s last hands. Personally, I find card games incredibly boring. The game scenes here were filmed with great skill and I was much more interested in the players’ motivations than their card hands.

The Cincinnati Kid is a crowd-pleaser, you’re either all in, or you’re out.

Here’s my look at director Norman Jewison’s 1967 ensemble masterpiece, In the Heat of the Night



"The Cincinnati Kid" is on its game as great entertainment.


  1. Great review, Rick! I'm no fan of card playing. In fact, I always run from the room if someone suggests playing a friendly game of Hearts. So, it takes a lot of good elements in a film like this one to make me comfortable with the subject matter. The Cincinnati Kid has those elements. In spades. (Sorry...) Thank you for describing Tuesday Weld, my favorite screen goddess as "ethereal". That fits her perfectly. I agree with your comments about Ann-Margret. I love her as a person, and she is certainly very talented. But her sex kitten thing is so artificial and overdone. I forgot that Rip Torn was in this. I only recently became a big fan of his, so I need to check out his performance. And, yes, this is one of Steve McQueen's best films. Eddie G. and Joan Blondell are always worth watching.

    1. Thanks, Mike! Nice to hear from you, btw. If you can't get this movie on TCM, it's also free on Tubi. Yeah, my mind wanders too much for cards! I was surprised myself how much I liked this film. Norman Jewison's movies were always so grown up in a good way. Cheers, Rick