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McQueen of Diamonds
by Asa Butcher
Issue 11
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The Cincinnati Kid
Norman Jewison
'The Hustler with playing cards' would be the simplest way to describe this film, yet it would barely do it justice. Steve McQueen was the 'King of Cool' and there is no argument following his diamond performance in The Cincinnati Kid - plus there isn't even a car or motorcycle chase.

The story, from Richard Jessup's novel of the same name, follows Eric Stoner, a.k.a. 'The Cincinnati Kid' (McQueen), who is an up-and-coming poker player in 1930's New Orleans. Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson) is known as 'The Man', the best player in the country and the one everybody wants to play, so a game is naturally arranged to pit the old and the new against one another. Outside influences and blackmail take their effect on the game and it eventually leads to a tense final hand.

Poker, especially stud poker, has appeared in countless Hollywood films over the years and they never fail to glamorise a game that is based on your skill to bluff, rather than luck. The movie games are always high stakes, one player chain smokes, shots of whisky are swallowed and there is always somebody cheating, well The Cincinnati Kid probably created these clichés, so we'll forgive it.

The film drives you towards the climax, but the subplots and supporting cast bring humanity to the players that make you hope that Lancey and The Kid both win. The subplot that any hot-blooded male will not want to miss is the scenes with Ann-Margret, who is unbelievably sexy as Melba Nile, the unfaithful wife of The Kid's best friend Shooter (Karl Malden).

Ann-Margret is introduced via her impressive cleavage, as she lies upon a bed completing a jigsaw in an unorthodox fashion, and she oozes sexuality in every scene after that; she is Marilyn Monroe, but without the innocence. During the painfully realistic cockfight scene, she visually becomes so turned on by the blood and violence that the term 'sex bomb' is frighteningly understated.

The other members of the cast aren't quite that sexy, but they are excellent nevertheless. A young Rip Torn plays the blackmailing Slade, Joan Blondell has fun playing the wise old owl called Lady Fingers and Karl Malden's Shooter is the harassed husband and dealer, while Edward G. Robinson, the epitome of the movie gangster, has a loveable grandfather characteristic.

Steve McQueen is the star of the film and he brings the usual quiet confidence with which he is so often associated. One of the best scenes takes place away from all the action of New Orleans, while he visits his girlfriend, who is staying with her parents in the countryside. The differences between the parents and The Kid create an awkward tension in the house, but a simple card trick overcomes this and McQueen's reaction is great to watch.

However, it is during the card playing scenes that the film comes to life and this is thanks to the efforts of Norman Jewison, the director, the editor Hal Ashby and Jay Ose, magician and one-time gambler. Ose was hired to teach the principle actors the art of dealing, cheating and card handling to bring further realism to the film, which he seems to have done extremely well.

Norman Jewison and Hal Ashby went on to work together on four more films, Gaily, Gaily (1969), In the Heat of the Night (1967), The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), again with McQueen, so their partnership was a successful one. The tension of the crowd and the players is portrayed splendidly through the camerawork and the editing; something that has been emulated in films such as Maverick.

Despite the odds of the two hands that appear in the same deal in the climactic scene being worse than 45 million-to-1, The Cincinnati Kid is an excellent film with all the elements that made those 1960's movies such classics, even Lalo Schifrin and Ray Charles were involved with the soundtrack. Don't call my bluff, watch this film if you can.
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