The Cincinnati Kid is often ranked as one of the best gambling movies of all time. Equipped with a star-studded cast and an emotional plot, it certainly won’t leave you indifferent.
With a fast-moving story packed in a touching drama wrapping, this movie will put you through some ups and downs as it unwinds.
That said, as it’s been well over half a century since it premiered, the question naturally poses, how does The Cincinnati Kid hold up nowadays?
We’ve re-watched the movie and are bringing you a detailed review of the plot, the characters, and the history of how The Cincinnati Kid came about.
The Book Version, Filming, and Initial Release
The Cincinnati Kid is directly based on the book of the same name. The book was published two years before the movie, in 1963.
And, although the Cincinnati Kid enjoyed great popularity at the time and is still a favorite movie for many gamblers, the book version has practically faded into obscurity.
A lot of turbulence surrounded the making of the movie itself. It was the screenwriter Ring Lardner’s first major studio piece since the infamous 1947 blacklisting caused by the Cold War.
Moreover, shortly after the filming began, Norman Jewison replaced the original director Sam Peckinpah.
When it was finally completed and released in 1965, The Cincinnati Kid initially received mixed reviews.
Some criticized it for being too similar to an earlier 60s movie called The Hustler. Others praised it for the many characters that significantly impact every scene they are featured in.
Despite these mixed reviews, The Cincinnati Kid was a huge hit among moviegoers. Moreover, several actors earned award nominations for their performances.
Most notably, Joan Blondell was nominated for a Golden Globe and won an award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures for her small but noticeable role as Lady Fingers.
The story begins during the Depression-era 1930s in New Orleans. It follows Eric Stoner, better known as “The Kid” among his peers. He is an up-and-coming poker player and hustler.
One day, The Kid hears that a notorious poker hustler named Lancey “The Man” Howard is coming to town.
The Kid sees this as an opportunity to challenge The Man, beat him, and become The Man himself.
While The Kid is overzealous in his intentions, his friend Shooter warns him to be more careful.
Shooter says that once he was in the same position, thinking that he could beat the man, only to be beaten badly when he finally faced him.
Once in town, The Man plays a game against a wealthy local, with Shooter providing his services as a dealer. The Man beats the local player, taking $6,000 in an epic game that lasts over 30 hours.
With his ego wounded, the defeated local player tries to bribe Shooter into cheating in The Kid’s favor in the upcoming game.
Shooter refuses, not wanting to jeopardize the reputation he carefully built over the decades. But, the player blackmails him by threatening to expose his cheating wife Melba to the others.
While The Kid prepares for the big game, his girlfriend Christian is off visiting her parents. Soon after, Shooter’s wife Melba tries to seduce The Kid, but he rejects her out of respect for his friendship with Shooter.
On the day of the big game, The Kid is intentionally late. At the start, there are six players in total, with Shooter again serving as the dealer.
As the evening unwinds, other players start busting out. The Kid beats The Man in a few big hands and even manages to pull off a few very unlikely wins, so much so that he starts garnering suspicions about the game’s validity.
However, during a subsequent break, The Kid confronts Shooter accusing him that he’s cheating in his favor without his consent.
Shooter admits to doing so and explains that another corrupt local man blackmailed him. The Kid tells Shooter to stop cheating, or he’ll expose him in front of everyone.
During the break, visibly distraught and agitated, The Kid starts conversing with Melba, who manages to seduce him.
Unfortunately for The Kid, his girlfriend Christian walks in on them and catches them in the act before storming out of the hotel.
When the game resumes, The Kid convinces the room to have Shooter replaced with another dealer, saying Shooter is sick and can’t continue. The Kid continues beating The Man in several poker hands in a row.
But, during the final hand of the night, The Man manages to completely turn the tides in his favor and take all of The Kid’s money.
The Man then gives a small speech, saying how The Kid can only be second best while he’s still around.
After leaving the game, The Kid walks out of the hotel and takes the same street he walked in during the film’s opening.
Walking in disbelief and despair, The Kid turns the corner and runs into Christian. They embrace, and the movie ends with a bitter-sweet tone.
Alternative Versions of the Movie
Although the plot commonly concludes with the ending we’ve just discussed above, there’s also an alternate ending that you may come across depending on which version you watch.
The most famous alternative version is the one that ends directly after The Kid loses and walks out on the street to penny pitch, with a focus on his face and an end title soon after.
A few other variations include or cut specific parts of the movie. For example, if you’re watching the British version of the film, it likely won’t include the cock fight, as it was cut by censors in the country when the movie came out.
Besides the two main male characters on which the movie centers around, there are a handful of female characters that breathe life into the film.
With that in mind, let’s get into a bit deeper analysis of the six main characters in The Cincinnati Kid:
Eric “The Kid” Stoner
Steve McQueen plays the lead role of Eric “The Kid” Stoner. He gives a cool performance without too many emotional flare-ups, fitting of a true poker player.
However, McQueen also delivers some touching and powerful performances, particularly in heart-breaking moments near the movie’s end.
McQueen’s mere presence and stature in the movie significantly contribute to the atmosphere and the overall feeling there’s a lot at stake.
If you’re a fan of McQueen’s work, his performance in The Cincinnati Kid is a must-see.
Lancey “The Man” Howard
Lancey ‘The Man” Howard is an older poker player who built up a notorious and legendary reputation in the poker scene.
He understands that money is merely a tool he uses to beat others, not an end goal for his gambling activities.
The Man is rightfully confident and cheeky to the point of arrogance.
Still, he enjoys the company of women and is revered by many others who want to be like him. The Man is played by Edward G. Robinson, a role that seems like a perfect fit for him.
Tuesday Weld portrays The Kid’s lovely and sympathetic girlfriend Christian that wants to spend the rest of her life with him.
Christian doesn’t get a lot of screen time in the movie, as her character mostly appears during the beginning and the end of it.
Played by Ann Margaret, Melba is Shooter’s opportunistic wife who doesn’t shy away from doing anything that would bring her what she wants.
Ann Margaret has excellent chemistry with Steve McQueen and pulls off very believable scenes in the screen time she’s given.
An honest and upright man, Shooter always tries to do what’s best. However, he lets himself get caught up in trouble because he cares too much for his unfaithful wife Melba.
He is played by the legendary actor Karl Malden, who portrays Shooter as an authentic everyman just trying to get along.
The soundtrack of the Cincinnati Kid is also worth singling out, especially when talking about the most famous song featured in the movie, which carries the same name.
The song titled “The Cincinnati Kid” was written by Dorcas Cochran and performed by the soul music pioneer and legend Ray Charles. It can be heard at the end of the movie.
The rest of the film’s song album is composed by the famous Lalo Schifrin. It includes a well-balanced mix of emotional, upbeat, and soothing music and perfectly complements the scenes they are featured in.
Summing It Up
Poker players are often depicted as very cool. And, there’s no arguing that when discussing the coolest actors of all time, Steve McQueen ranks very high on the list.
Moreover, The Cincinnati Kid is an all-time great gambling movie that is still interesting to watch today.
That said, as it’s been close to 60 years since this film came out, it inevitably features a number of clear movie tropes that we have grown to recognize nowadays.
There’s an interesting dynamic between The Kid and The Man, with the younger player trying to beat the master.
Of course, there’s also the bittersweet ending. Although The Kid loses the game he put so many prayers for, at least he is reunited with Christian.
So, while you could argue that The Kid will have to live knowing that The Man will always be better than him, at least he won on one important front.
Overall, The Cincinnati Kid is a well-produced feature with near-perfect casting for each role, especially for the two main characters.
The Cincinnati Kid is simple yet features detailed and well-written subplots and three dimensional characters.
Even though the movie is from an entirely different era and a different world, it still hits close to home. It’s a gambling classic that every casino enthusiast and particularly a poker fan should watch at least once.