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Poker Movie Review: The Cincinnati Kid

Poker Movie Review: "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965)
by Daniel Johnson of

Even back in 1965, when "The Cincinnati Kid" was released, people knew poker was a game of skill. The film follows Eric Stoner; known mostly as "The Kid", played be Steve McQueen as he tries to become "The Man", otherwise known as the best stud poker player around. The film presents a well constructed narrative that drives toward an epic and dramatic climax, making it an enjoyable ride for the audience, even the non-poker players.

The film is set in depression-era New Orleans in the smoky backrooms and pool halls where the professional gamblers go to work. The beginning scenes show examples of the danger that is often associated with high-stakes gambling as The Kid fights off thugs that he wins money from. They also set up The Kid as being the up-and-coming young gun in the New Orleans 5-Card Stud poker scene.

Word starts to get around about The Kid's skill and also about Lancey Howard's upcoming visit, who is the veteran of the game, played by Edward G. Robinson. Howard holds the current title as "The Man" in poker and a game between the two is scheduled. Stories circulate about Howard's winnings and when the audience meets him, they see him as a very rich man and it's easy to assume that he has accumulated his fortune from his skill at poker.

The Kid's friend, named Shooter, is hired to deal the game as he is the most trusted player in the New Orleans area. He has a 25 year reputation of honesty and integrity, but that comes into question as a rival of Howard's, named Slade, blackmails Shooter into dealing a crooked game in favor of The Kid. It seems Shooter owes Slade money and Slade threatens to reveal Shooter's wife's infidelities to the community, which would damage that well established reputation Shooter is so proud of. Shooter reluctantly agrees to Slade's request.

The film does an excellent job at using the game of poker to build up an increasing level of tension that leads to the ultimate showdown between the two top players. One thing I loved about the film is that it used the other characters and the narrative to hype up the battle and during this whole time, the two have never actually met, but they already respect each other. The drama then unfolds as the two sit down, both ultra-cool and confident in their abilities. It becomes a true test of wills and wits and really shows what the game of poker is all about. Poker fans will love this aspect of the film and even non-poker fans will get sucked into the drama and tension between the main characters.

It also uses slick photography and cuts to reveal that tension instead of drawn-out monologues and long-winded speeches. The story in this film is told with faces, looks and reactions to the cards. McQueen's stoic presence at the table as The Kid and Robinson's strong and steady performance as Howard shine on the screen and are major appeals to the film. Though few words are spoken between them, their clash is as intense as a heavyweight prize fight and is a powerful punch of a way to conclude the tension raised by the first two acts of the movie.

The film does have a somewhat unnecessary side plot in terms of the narrative; a romance between The Kid and a country girl. It does however, create a diversion from the tension and humanizes The Kid, showing him as more of a caring person and not just a cutthroat card shark.

In this case, simple story telling makes for an enjoyable experience at the movies. The narrative drives towards a destination that is already known, but the ending will surprise most of the audience at the same time. "The Cincinnati Kid" displays realistic poker games and the prowess it takes to win them and features wonderful performances from not only its leads, but also from Rip Torn, as Slade and Karl Madden, as Shooter. Although the poker game they play in the movie (5-Card Stud) is virtually dead nowadays, the thrill, excitement and drama of the game shown in the film is the same as it is today.

Rating: 4 out of 5 chips

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