Time: 102 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
There's just something inherently sexy and dangerous about professional gamblers and doubly so when they're played by someone as magnetic as Steve McQueen. His role as New Orleans latest poker stud uses all of his mystique and charm and not much of his depth of talent. He plays the Cincinnati Kid an up-and-comer on the local circuit trying to prove he's the best there is. All he has to do to secure that reputation is to beat the best poker player in the country Lancey Howard (Robinson), who just happens to be back in town.
With the help of his old dealer friend Shooter (Malden), he gets a space at the high rollers table. Lancey is only more than willing to take the Kid's money and show everyone he's still the man to beat. There's a lot of other guff Ann-Margaret and Weld play emotional and sexual games to win McQueen's heart and Torn wallows and wails as a player who gets annihilated by Lancey and plots his revenge but none of it is half as entertaining or compelling as the mental battle between Robinson and McQueen.
The first hour is melodrama of the obvious sort, merely idling away the minutes until the best of the best meet. This film is all about the big game. Period. No one wants to watch Steve McQueen mooning over Tuesday Weld, especially when he can and does make time with the sultry Ms. Margaret. Torn and Malden give the more well-rounded performances, but that's not really saying much. The former is mostly seeking vengeance for his embarrassment at the table and the latter is caught between a rock and his debtor (Torn), forced to deal the Kid some luck, whether he wants to or not. Joan Blondell makes the most of her limited screentime breaking up the boys club as the wisecracking, back-up dealer Lady Fingers.
McQueen and Robinson's inherent cool and intelligence give the final marathon an aura of suspense that's somewhat surprising considering the ponderous nature of the first half of the story. Their onscreen charisma makes them equals and I was never quite sure until the last card was flipped over who was going to win. For his part, Jewison makes the card playing visually interesting, using close-ups to bring the emotions to the surface. While the film focuses on the cards and the men who play them, it's entrancing. The rest of the time it's a bust.