The Cincinnati Kid (1965) *****

Steve McQueen had little trouble identifying with this role. He was the Hollywood contender, trying to knock current kingpin Paul Newman off his perch, and in Norman Jewison’s tense, often heart-stopping, drama he has the ideal vehicle. For the most part this is a winner-take-all face-off, as much a showdown as any western shootout, in darkened rooms under the harsh light of a New Orleans poker table between a rising star always referred to as The Kid (Steve McQueen) and the unofficial world champion, the urbane cigar-smoking Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson).

Broadened out in the initial stages to include scenic diversions – the Mississippi at dawn, a cockfight, some jazz – plus romance and intrigue, this is essentially pure sport, a game of stares, where bluff holds the ace and women exist on the perimeter only to fill in the time before the next hyped-up encounter. There’s no trophy to be won, not even glory, just the right to call yourself “The Man.” The Kid feels the pressure of punching above his weight, Lancey of getting old.

Farmer’s daughter and arty-wannabe Christian (Tuesday Weld) is the Kid’s main squeeze until she gets between him and his game. When she takes off, he makes do with Melba (Ann-Margret), girlfriend of dealer Shooter (Karl Malden) who was somewhat preoccupied with giving the Kid more than a helping hand to satisfy the vengeful Slade (Rip Torn), a rich businessman.

Although it finally comes down to a confrontation between the Kid and Lancey, subordinate characters like sweating poker player Pig (Jack Weston) and stand-in dealer Ladyfingers (Joan Blondell) help dissipate the tension. But in fact anything that occurs only seems to increase the tension as it comes down to the one big final hand. 

This is McQueen (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) in transition, from the loner in The Great Escape (1963) to an actor exuding charisma and on top of his acting game. While on the face of it little more than a sporting lug, the Kid is an appealing character, engaging with a little shoeshine boy, winning over Christian’s truculent parents with what appears a card trick but is actually a demonstration of the phenomenal memory necessary to excel in his chosen field. There’s a winsome child in there among the macho persona. The poker face that McQueen developed would become one of his acting traits over the years.

Edward G. Robinson (Seven Thieves, 1960) gives a rounded performance as the reigning poker champ accepting emotional loss as the price for all his financial gains. Tuesday Weld is an appealing waif. Karl Malden (Pollyanna, 1960) essays another tormented soul and Rip Torn (Judas in King of Kings, 1961) a sleazy one. Also look out for a host of great character actors including Jack Weston (Mirage, 1965), Oscar nominee Joan Blondell (Advance to the Rear, 1964) and Jeff Corey (Once a Thief, 1965) plus composer and bandleader Cab Calloway.

Ann-Margret, all eye-shadow and cleavage, is in her best man-eater form. But, thankfully, there is more to her character than that. It is unclear whether she simply latches on to a potential winner or is pimped out by Shooter, but just hooking up with that older man (i.e. Shooter) makes her interesting, since looks are far from his attraction. Her ruthlessness is spelled out in simple fashion. She is determined to win, cheating at solitaire and she slams the wrong pieces into a jigsaw just for the satisfaction of making it look complete. You can sense a depth in this character which the film does not have time to fully explore.

Although often compared to The Hustler (1962), and in many eyes considered both its inferior and a crude rip-off, this is in some respects a greater achievement. At least in The Hustler, there actually was action, players moving around a pool table, clacking balls racing across the surface.  Poker is all about stillness. Any gesture could give away your thoughts. Unlike any other sport, poker requires silence. There is no roaring crowd, just people dotted round the room, some with vested interest if only through a wager, some wanting to say they were there when a champion was toppled.

So the ability to maintain audience interest with two guys just staring at each other, interspersed with minimal dialog, takes some skill. Building that to a crescendo of sheer tension is incredible.

The first four pictures of Canadian director Norman Jewison (Send Me No Flowers, 1964) did not hint at the dramatic chops, confidence, composure and understanding of pacing required, especially as he was a last-minute replacement for Sam Peckinpah, to pull this off. That he does so with style demonstrated a keen and versatile talent that would come to the boil in his next three films: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).  

The former blacklisted Ring Lardner Jr. (Tracy-Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, 1942) was credited with his first screenplay since The Forbidden Street in 1949 and he shared the chore with another iconic figure, Terry Southern (Dr Strangelove, 1964), basing their work on the original novel by Richard Jessup. Not sure who contributed the classic line: “Read ’em and weep.” Mention should be made of a terrific score by Lao Schifrin.

Blindfold (1965) *****

Hugely enjoyable superior addition to the romantic thriller genre with charismatic stars and a touch of screwball comedy. Dr Stone (Rock Hudson), a psychiatrist with such commitment issues he is dubbed “Bluebeard” by the media, is recruited by General Prat (Jack Warden) of the National Security Council to prevent former patient Arthur Vincenti (Alejandro Rey) falling victim to an international scientist-kidnapping ring. Getting to the patient, a plane and car ride away, requires the titular blindfold so Stone has no idea where he is. When Vincenti attacks Stone as a traitor, Prat explains the scientist has been brainwashed.

Ballet dancer Vicky (Claudia Cardinale) engineers an accidentally-on-purpose meet-cute in Central Park by running her bicycle into Stone’s horse but when, to nurse her injury, he carries her into his office she steals the scientist’s file. Turns out her artistic skills are somewhat lower than ballet, she is a go-go dancer, but she is the scientist’s brother whom she claims has been kidnapped. Stone is arrested and to get out of another sticky situation announces he is engaged to Vicky.

Complications are added when the C.I.A and F.B.I. enter the equation as well as a very suspicious cop Harrigan (Brad Dexter) with an inferiority complex, a couple of shady homburg-wearing hoods and new patient Fitzpatrick (Guy Stockwell), who, all, in one way or another, hound Stone and Vicky. The couple’s relationship is one of those on-again off-again romances which come with the territory. Soon, of course, Stone doesn’t know who to believe.

Bearing in mind we still have to get to the geese, the alligators and a mule called Henry, the witty, inventive script delivers on all fronts. Both Stone and Vicky are believable characters, and Stone’s psychiatric skills are not just window dressing – the kind of tony job associated with innocents thrust into peril. He uses his proficiency to get out of scrapes and eventually solve the mystery. Despite her glamor-girl persona, Vicky is the opposite of the sleek high-living characters often shoehorned into this kind of picture, a down-to-earth lass living in a brownstone with her mama and papa. Both leads turn out to be handy with their fists and in Vicky’s case her high-kicking feet.

And the comedy, rather than getting in the way or looking ridiculously out of place, aids and abets the storyline. It falls into three distinct camps. There is repartee not just between Stone and Vicky but Stone’s secretary (Anne Seymour) operates a sideline in dry quips. Slapstick comes mainly in the form of a fire extinguisher employed as a weapon and Stone nearly losing his trousers scaling a fence. Bureaucratic brick walls that hint of paranoia come close to classic black comedy. Not to mention some visual gags – “undie dummies” anyone – and some neat reversals.

This is Hudson at his very best and while often confused is never flustered, and without recourse to the double-takes that appeared so essential in any previous film with a comedic element. His character is assured, self-aware, thoughtful (he has to be to think things out), and very human. Cardinale is more than a match, a nice girl in the wrong line of work, passionate, determined and very warm. Director Philip Dunne find dramatic reasons to reveal her famous assets in body stocking, leotard and underwear, but in reality it is her smile that is the killer.

Dunne (Lisa, 1962) keeps up a cracking pace. He had a hand in the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Lucille Fletcher (Sorry, Wrong Number, 1948), one-time wife of composer Bernard Herrmann. Here, incidentally, the music is by Lalo Schifrin. Among the decade’s romantic thrillers this is out-ranked only by Charade (1963).

Cool Hand Luke (1967) *****

Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) has none of the truculence of the ordinary rebel, consequence not part of his vocabulary, “it seemed a good idea at the time” his unfailing mantra. Outside of Butch Cassidy, a more amiable criminal you would struggle to find. He defies authority with a smirk, indiscriminate in opposing the system, whether devised by guards or prisoners and they are indiscriminate in return, swiftly punishing anyone who steps out of line.

First-time director Stuart Rosenberg’s meditation on martyrdom remains an iconic curiosity and one of a handful of great performances that showcase Paul Newman’s immense acting skills. It is about ten minutes too long, unremitting sequences of lorries travelling to and from work detail, in the morning or at night, and the work itself, way too repetitive, suggests a director who did not quite trust his audience to get it.

In a prison movie, the main narrative is always escape, but Luke is as much trying to escape from himself as his circumstances. There is a self-pitying aspect in him blaming God for making him the way he is. But beyond these gripes it remains an astonishing and involving work. This is a world reduced to a single common denominator – brutality. For a man who loathes rules, this is hell.

While no other character apart from Dragline (George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning role) and the Warden (Strother Martin in one of his best mean roles) is given much to do, nonetheless the rest of the cast do not merge into the background, facial expressions and tiny actions revealing character.  

There are a number of terrific scenes – Newman refusing to give in when beaten to a pulp in a boxing match, the egg-eating contest, the digging-the-hole method of destroying a man’s spirit, the guard bewailing the death of his dog. But the movie also examines the universal need for hero worship, Dragline’s bewilderment when Luke eventually fails to live up to expectation is affecting.

Two other aspects stand out. With every prisoner in the same uniform and the countryside bleak and undistinguished, Conrad Hall’s cinematography is miraculous while Lalo Schifrin’s score, with the wonderfully evocative simple theme, is continuously inventive. As definitive an examination of the outsider as the later Easy Rider.