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Cincinnati Kid

(American, 1965, 113 minutes, color, 16 mm)

Directed by Norman Jewison

Steve McQueen . . . . . . . . . . Cincinnati Kid
Edward G. Robinson . . . . . . . . . Lancey Howard
Ann-Margret. . . . . . . . . . Melba
Karl Malden . . . . . . . . . . Shooter
Tuesday Weld. . . . . . . . . . Christian
Rip Torn. . . . . . . . . . Slade
Joan Blondell. . . . . . . . . . Lady Fingers

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Image10.jpg 8.0 KHoward Thompson of the NEW YORK TIMES (October 28, 1965) pompously characterized THE CINCINNATI KID as a drama that "pungently projects the machinations and back-room temperatures of the sidestreet professional gambling world." Sam Peckinpah began work on the MGM film, but the project was completed by Norman Jewison. This assignment marked yet another new turn in what would come to be, for Jewison, an unpredictable career that produced a wide variety of films including Doris Day romantic comedies like THE THRILL OF IT ALL (1963), the timely satire THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1967), the topical social drama IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), the musicals FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971) and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973), the dystopic sci-fi ride ROLLERBALL (1975), and a scathing examination of the shortcomings of the justice system, AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (1979). What unites much of this body of otherwise disparate works is a recognizable Jewison style, which, according to John Baxter, is evident in "its elements--rich crimsons; the sheen of faces, tanned or sweating, in shadowed rooms; an edgy passion in performance." THE CINCINNATI KID exhibits the beginnings of this style.

Many students of film may find this particular work by Jewison worth examining for both its remarkable script and its oddly assembled yet marvelous cast. Screenwriters Lardner, one of the blacklisted Hollywood 10, for whom this film marked a re-emergence in studio work, and Southern, whose work on DR. STRANGELOVE (1963) and THE LOVED ONE (1965) marked him as one of the best dialogue writers of the time (the encounter between Shooter and Slade in the shooting gallery is all Southern), had the freedom to develop subplots and minor characters, which is why the cast is so large, and notable. Steve McQueen plays the title role of "The Kid," who reviewer Thompson called "a derelict card wizard, on the beatnik side." Edward G. Robinson turns in one of his great performances as the undisputed poker kingpin, "The Man," whom the Kid is intent on toppling. Karl Malden plays Shooter, basically a decent man forced into a tough situation as he is leaned upon by the vengeful Slade (Rip Torn) to deal dirty in the Kid’s poker showdown with the Man. Add to this an ensemble of secondary and bit characters played by Ann-Margret, Jack Weston, Tuesday Weld, Joan Blondell, Karl Swenson and Cab Calloway; character realization by Southern and Lardner; on-location sets in New Orleans; and you get one of the more intriguing film projects of the mid sixties.

"Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern have translated the major elements of [Richard Jessup’s] book to the Metrocolor screen in their script changing, however, [the] tome’s St. Louis locale to a more picturesque New Orleans background. They have added a key situation, too, to point up the game--Malden, in [the] part of Shooter, dealer for the game, is forced by another gambler holding his markers to slip cards to the Kid so he’ll cinch his victory. The Kid, intent on winning on his own and proving he is the best stud player alive, senses what's going on and eases Malden from his post.

"Direction by Norman Jewison early establishes the rightful mood for the story and he draws top performances from his entire cast, which include some unusual types in bit parts. Even his staging of a cockfight, which distaff audiences might not particularly relish, adds a right note of realism, both in the fight itself and the reactions of the players. His tempo is aided by the sharp editing of Hal Ashby, whose shears enable quick change of scene, and Philip H. Lathrop’s facile color camerawork contributes importantly to general interest.

"McQueen’s particular style of acting fits this role well, his mutterings and his sometimes incoherency adding to the strength of his character, for which he is given occasional bursts of wry humor. Robinson is entirely believable as the old master at cards, and Malden is a standout as the ethical dealer caught in circumstances beyond his control." — From VARIETY, October 2, 1965

The plot and themes of THE CINCINNATI KID bear more than casual resemblances to Robert Rossen’s gritty 1961 film, THE HUSTLER, as do a few of the hard-boiled characters and settings. Yet this film’s stylized realism, dreamlike color, and detailed subplots give THE CINCINNATI KID a dramatic complexity and self-awareness that THE HUSTLER lacks.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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