The Cincinnati Kid
Desert Island Movie #3
The Blues is a term or a phrase we use mostly to generally describe a melancholy state of being as “I’ve got the blues today because…”The other use of the term is of course in the musical context. It defines a genre of music which also alludes to a state of sadness or depression as well. And when done well it becomes a poetic evocation of that famous line indicating that our sweetest songs come from our saddest thoughts.
Now there have been many movies with the word blues in their titles and several attempting to tell the story of the music and how it became a part of our musical/ cultural heritage. But the only movie I’ve seen that actually captures that elusive state of being is not a musical but a film about gambling called The Cincinnati Kid (1965) directed by Norman Jewison, starring Steve Mc Queen. From my understanding McQueen made the film as a sort of riposte to The Hustler (1961) starring Paul Newman because he felt competitive with Newman for whatever reason.
The film had a troubled time getting made. Sam Peckinpah was the original director and either left or was replaced due to “artistic differences”. Jewison came on and took the film in another direction altogether. I have heard and read speculations all the time about what a great film Peckinpah might’ve made out of this material. I don’t know. What I do know is what is there. A film whose mood takes you in, wraps itself around you and keeps you in that state until it releases you when the end credits come up. But in my case it goes beyond that. This to me is the quintessential blues picture. The tone is set by McQueen’s central performance as Eric Stoner aka “The Cincinnati Kid” and it is picked up and extended by just about all of the other principals. Tuesday Weld as his sad but hopeful girl friend Christian, Karl Malden as Shooter the compromised dealer married to a woman too young and restless for him. Edward G. Robinson as Lancy or “The Man” the tired, ageing champion trying to keep his position one more time. Ann- Margaret gives a sexy and knowing performance as the amusingly wicked but quietly dissatisfied Melba. And Rip Torn, as the villain of the piece Slade gets a variety of colors in what could’ve been a one note part. He’s dangerous, unpredictable, sly and even amusing in his shifts of mood. But in total each seems to be carrying his/her own private state of the blues throughout the entire film. And Jewison’s direction frames and echoes that all the way through.
The story is the age old one of the young contender taking on the old master. Here the game is Poker and the whole situation is set up like a gunfight in a western. The Young Turk is anxious for a face off, the old gun comes in from out of town to take him on and the whole town awaits the outcome. But the side stories leading up to the big game are well drawn and shaded in. And there’s an especially pastoral moment that is both tender and wryly amusing when Stoner visits his girlfriend at her parents farm before going into the big game.
The game itself is shot and cut for maximum excitement. And adding color to all of it are the actors cast as the players and observers. Cab Calloway, Joan Blondell, Jeff Corey, Jack Weston and Milton Selzer. But still all throughout the film retains its melancholy mood. It’s blues. I think much of the credit must go to Norman Jewison for not imposing so strong a directorial personality that might’ve or most likely would’ve choked off the charms the performers brought to their roles and subtle grace of Ring Lardner’s adaptation of Richard Jessup’s novel. He directs it in an admirably relaxed manner that allows us to enter into the gambling world of pre Katrina New Orleans without feeling rushed or pushed.
I look at this film whenever I want to escape into a psychic atmosphere other than my own. And it always does. That’s what makes it a must for my desert island list of ten.