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Film / The Cincinnati Kid

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The Cincinnati Kid is a 1965 drama film directed by Norman Jewison, starring Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Ann-Margret, Tuesday Weld, Karl Malden, Joan Blondell, Rip Torn and Cab Calloway.

Eric Stoner, aka the Cincinnati Kid (McQueen), is a hot young poker player in 1930s New Orleans. When a much older master of poker, Lancey "The Man" Howard (Robinson), arrives in town, the Kid wants to play him.

In his personal life, the Kid is dating a pretty blonde farm girl, Christian (Weld), but has obvious sexual tension with his friend Shooter's vixenish wife Melba (Ann-Margret). Shooter (Malden), for his part, is $12,000 in debt to William Slade (Torn), who hates Howard. Slade strong-arms Shooter into cheating on behalf of the Kid at the climactic poker game.

A description of tropes appearing in The Cincinnati Kid:

  • Always Second Best / Always Someone Better: Lancey Howard's cracking line at the end:
    "You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around you're second best."
  • Betty and Veronica: The Kid is dating Christian (Betty) who is pretty, sweet, and kind of dull, but he's drawn to the wild and sexy Melba (Veronica), who is married to a friend of his but constantly flirts with him. True to form, Weld is a blonde and Ann-Margret is a redhead.
  • Beastly Bloodsports: The cockfight scene, in which the insouciant Melba reveals a sadistic streak. She’s plainly aroused by the bloodshed.
  • The Big Easy: The film's setting is 1930s New Orleans.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Kid loses the card game, and knows that Howard is better than him (on top of now owing him $5000), but at least he gets back together with Christian.
  • Book Ends: In the intro, the Kid beats a shoeshine boy in a penny pitch. In the ending, after the climatic poker match, the boy challenges him again and wins.
  • Boring, but Practical: Shooter's gambling style. Once a more adventurous gambler like the Kid, he now makes a modest living "playing percentages", and in the big poker game, he quits while he's ahead.
  • Card Sharp: Shooter has the skills, but never utilizes them to uphold his reputation for honesty. Unfortunately, Slade blackmails him into cheating in the Kid's favor. Kid eventually catches on and warns Shooter to stop because he wants to win fair-and-square. It turns out badly for him in the end.
  • Cool Old Guy: Lancey. When he's played by Edward G. Robinson, it's a given.
  • Cool Old Lady: Lady Fingers, herself once a champion poker player, still an excellent dealer, likes to tell stories about people she knew who are now dead.
  • Establishing Character Moment: When we first see Melba she is cheating at a jigsaw puzzle, cutting pieces to make them fit.
  • Every Man Has His Price: Shooter turns down a bribe from Slade. In response, Slade calls in $12,000 worth of Shooter's markers (IOUs) and threatens to tell "stories" about Melba.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Early in the film, Shooter tells Kid about his past game with the Man, saying he thought of himself as the best stud poker player in the world until Lancey gutted him.
    • When Lady Fingers deals the last cards, she calls out "Possible straight flush".
  • The Film of the Book: Based on a (now-forgotten) novel by Richard Jessup.
  • Flexible Tourney Rules:
    • The poker players frequently make string bets (Declaring "I call... and raise..." and/or putting in money before specifying the amount) despite one of the rules outright stating "no string bets".
    • During the first series of escalating bets between Pig and the Man, they skip Kid in the betting round.
    • When the Man faces off against Pig, he initially bets an amount Pig can't afford, so he lowers the bet and takes back the extra money out of the pot.
  • The Gambler: All of the card sharks, who do this for a living.
  • Good with Numbers: The night before the big game, the Kid is shown doing mental math exercises, presumably to give him an edge in poker. This is never brought up again.
    • In the original novel and screenplay, the Kid confronts Lancey after the final hand, lampshading the odds of that final hand and criticizing his highly illogical play (as does Lady Fingers in the film).
  • Hollywood Costuming: Most of the fashions here could easily have fit into the the contemporary showing of the film's release (1965) with Ann-Margret's long, teased hair and the makeup for both her and Tuesday Weld rather than what was in fashion for the film's 1930s setting. Even some of the clothes they wore could fit into the mid-1960s.
  • Hometown Nickname: It's even the title of the film.
  • Hope Spot:
    • Pig wins himself a nice pot and brags about it. Lady Fingers correctly predicts he'll be the first to drop out.
    • In the lead-up to the final hand, the Kid wins several major pots from The Man, who is visibly losing confidence.
  • Interplay of Sex and Violence: Melba gets turned on by the cockfighting match; she rubs the Kid's arm and says in a bedroom voice "Let's go to the car."
  • Interrupted Intimacy: Well, post-interrupted intimacy; Christian walks in on the Kid and Melba after they have finished up.
  • Love Triangle: Two of them. The Kid with Melba and Christian, and Melba herself with the Kid and Shooter.
  • The Magic Poker Equation:
    • The climactic hand features a game of 5-card stud where the Kid (Steve McQueen) gets dealt a full house only to lose to The Man (Edward G. Robinson) and his straight flush. According to Anthony Holden in his book Big Deal: A Year as a Professional Poker Player, the chances of such a final hand are 45,102,781 to 1 against, and the situation in particular would only arise once every 443 years.
    • Averted in an scene where The Man wins a game with nothing more than a queen high, bluffing out two players with better hands. During the big game, he knocks out most of the players with well-timed bluffs.
  • Moral Luck: As long as Stoner is winning, he's a hero. When he finally loses, everyone is upset with him.
  • Morton's Fork: Shooter is faced with this while dealing for the big poker game. Slade blackmails him to cheat for the Kid, while the the Kid warns Shooter to not cheat or he'll blow the whistle on him. Fortunately, the Kid also helps him side-step the issue by having Lady Fingers deal for the remainder of the game.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld, of course.note 
  • No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You to Dine: During a break in the game, Slade invites Kid to a nice dinner and makes several thinly-veiled threats if Kid doesn't play along with Shooter's cheating.
  • Only Known By His Nickname: Eric "The Kid" Stoner is almost never called by his real name.
  • Organ Grinder: When we first see The Man, he's giving cash to an organ grinder and his monkey.
  • Professional Gambler: According to everyone in the world of stud poker, Lancey is the best. Kid is the undisputed best gambler in town, until Lancey shows up.
  • Really Gets Around: Shooter agrees to cheat for Slade because of a story about Melba that Slade was going to tell his kids. Melba continuously makes advances at the Kid throughout the film and eventually succeeds, which unfortunately lands him in hot water with Christian.
  • Sore Loser:
    • In the beginning of the film, Kid cleans out another player at poker. The man accuses him of cheating and tries to rob him of the winnings, leading to a brief fight and Chase Scene.
    • Slade loses $6000 while playing the Man and wants to see him gutted by the Kid. He is willing to threaten Shooter and the Kid to make it happen.
    • Pig folds after Lancey puts him all in, realizes he might've been bluffed and tries to peek at the down cards before storming off.
  • Tomboyish Name: Christian, usually a boy's name, here given to the innocent farm girl played by Tuesday Weld.
  • The Trope Kid: The Cincinnati Kid, Eric Stoner's nickname.
  • Villainous Rescue: In the first big confrontation between the Kid and Howard, the Kid is short $2000 and Slade steps in to stake him.