|The Cincinnati Kid (1965, Norman Jewison) is the Citizen Kane of poker films. Probably the biggest surprise about this magnificent film is that it was co-written by the satirist Terry Southern, who brought us Dr. Strangelove, Candy, and The Magic Christian. At first glance the film seems much like a poker version of The Hustler, but a closer viewing reveals some undeniable Southern-esque flourishes.
First off, there are the two female leads in the film. Angelic, innocent Tuesday Weld (with whom Filmbrain is currently smitten) and devilish, lusty redheaded Ann-Margret. Weld plays Christian (subtle, Terry) the ivory skinned farm girl who adores Eric Stoner a.k.a. The Cincinnati Kid (Steve McQueen) but worries that she'll never be more than a poker player's girlfriend. Margret plays the street savvy gold digging Melba, with a shady past. Her marriage to Shooter (Karl Malden) in no way deters her from her desire to bed The Kid.
|There are a handful of scenes that are quintessentially Southern. In one, Christian kneels beside The Kid as he takes a bath and describes (in detail) a French film she saw with Melba. It's a beautiful drawn out moment that is immediately followed by a contrasting scene of a drunk Melba tormenting her poor husband Shooter and cheating at a jigsaw puzzle thanks to a pair of scissors. Yet the scene that best displays Southern's gift for dialog is the meeting between Shooter and the rich, evil William Jefferson Slade (the ever-frightening Rip Torn.)
Though there's no question about the significance of the cockfighting scene (which works Melba up to a near-sexual frenzy), it's interesting to note that the final poker match which takes up the last third of the film is a battle between the Stoner and "The Man" (Edward G. Robinson's moniker in the film). Yeah, that sounds like pure Southern.
Though one can't help wonder what the film would have been like had Sam Peckinpah been able to complete it (he was taken off the project early on), Jewison turns in one of the most interesting films of his oeuvre. Unavailable on DVD, the film pops up now and then on Turner Classic Movies. Well worth checking out.