Behind the Scenes – “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)

As you can see from the advertisement above, this was originally intended to be quite a different film, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Spencer Tracy in the role of ageing poker champ Lancey. The director had just come off one troubled shoot, Major Dundee (1965), and was seeking Hollywood redemption. Two-time Oscar winner Tracy was also hoping to revive his career. Except for what amounted to little more than a extended cameo on It’s A Mad, Mad,, Mad, Mad World (1963) he had not worked since Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). Also initially on board in a small role was Sharon Tate (Valley of the Dolls, 1967)

This was also a big gamble for industry outsider Martin Ransohoff who had moved to the forefront of independent production after The Americanization of Emily (1964) with Julie Andrews and James Garner and The Sandpiper (1965) starring current top-billed royalty Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He had wheeled and dealed with top studios – MGM, Columbia and United Artists – desperate for quality product. He was planning the biggest movie of his career having purchased the rights to the Alistair MacLean bestseller Ice Station Zebra. Ransohoff was a marketing innovator and long before Robert Evans pumped tens of thousands of Paramount dollars into advertising the book of Love Story (1970) to ensure it rode high on the bestseller charts and thus increased public awareness, Ransohoff had pulled off the same trick for Richard Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid.

Tracy was first to quit, infuriated that he was denied script approval. Essentially, he wanted his role beefed up. But Ransohoff “would not expand his role in any way” and angered at the prospect of playing second fiddle to McQueen the actor walked out, to be replaced by a star with considerably less marquee appeal, Edward G. Robinson.

At least Tracy was able to depart with head held high. Peckinpah was ignominiously fired after shooting had begun. The intemperate director had already locked horns with the producer over a story which had now taken the efforts of four screenwriters – Oscar-winner Paddy Chayefsky (The Americanization of Emily), Oscar-winner Ring Lardner Jr. (Woman of the Year, 1943), Oscar nominee Terry Southern (Dr Strangelove, 1964) and newcomer Charles Eastman (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970) – to knock the book into a workable screenplay without the extra bother of Peckinpah adding his own scenes.

Trade newspaper Variety reported: “Peckinpah’s problems stemmed from his filming of a nude scene that wasn’t in the script but which the director wrote on his own. Last Friday (November 4, 1964) he reportedly excused the featured cast and began to lense the nudie scene using an extra from the cast.” Whether this was indeed Sharon Tate, of whom Peckinpah was reported to have filmed in a flimsy shirt without a bra so that her nipples were showing, is unclear. And although there is an undertone of sex in the actual picture, as delivered by Ann-Margret, it was considerably more discreet.

Strangely enough, Ransohoff was no stranger to the benefits of nudity in his pictures and had fought a losing battle with the all-powerful MPAA, the industry ruling body in matters of censorship, to have nude scenes included in The Americanization of Emily. The nude statue of Elizabeth Taylor in The Sandpiper was permitted, however, and Ransohoff sent hundreds of miniature statues out to influencers as a gift.

Peckinpah did not have final cut so Ransohoff could easily have excised any nude scenes from the finished movie. What was considerably more alarming was that Peckinpah was shooting in black-and-white. Later, Ransohoff would contend that he was outraged by this notion but he surely must have signed off on it at the outset. Whatever the reasons, and some believed fisticuffs were involved, Peckinpah was sacked, leaving a $750,000 hole in the budget.

Production closed for over a month while Ransohoff scrambled for a new director. McQueen was pay-or-play, so if the film was cancelled, the actor was due his entire fee. McQueen had signed on for a fee of $200,000 – or $350,000 depending on who you believe – and $30,000 a week in overtime plus 25 per cent of the profit and a host of extras. McQueen had been initially lined up for a Ranoshoff remake of Boys Town to co-star James Garner, but that proved little more than a publicity flyer.

Replacement Norman Jewison had no reputation for hard-line drama – more at home with light comedy such as Send Me No Flowers (1964) – but was available and more likely to toe the Ransohoff line. However, initially he demurred. It was against the rules of the Directors Guild to step in in such a manner and Jewison required reassurance that Peckinpah was indeed out of the picture, and the film had been shut down, before accepting the job. Theoretically, Jewison received more control of the final cut than Peckinpah. His contract called for him to be in sole charge of the completed picture until after the third public preview. If it wasn’t working by that point, Ransohoff had the right to take over. Jewison exerted control in other ways, denying actors a chance to look at the rushes

Theoretically, McQueen had conceded top billing to Spencer Tracy, but that was not reflected in the artwork MGM put out – the illustration at the top of the Blog appeared in the trade press prior to production. To keep McQueen sweet during the layoff, Ransohoff handed him $25,000 to play the tables in Vegas. Edward G. Robinson had the same worries as Spencer Tracy, fearing his part would be cut to build up the star. In reality, McQueen welcomed going head-to-head with an older star, a situation he had not experienced since The Magnificent Seven (1960) with Yul Brynner.

But if the male stars, under the confident direction of Jewison, gave no trouble, that was not the case with the female contingent. Tuesday Weld came with a heap of personal issues related to becoming, as a child model,  the family breadwinner at an early age – nervous breakdown at nine, alcoholic at ten, suicide attempt at twelve. She had never quite achieved stardom, in part as a result of turning down roles like Lolita (1962)

Ann-Margret was the opposite. She could earn nearly as much as McQueen – her fee at some studios was $250,000. However, Twentieth Century Fox was holding her to an earlier four-picture deal which paid a miserly $25,000 per movie, forcing her to lose out on a $150,000 payday in Europe for The 10th Victim (1965) with Marcello Mastroianni – known at the time as The Seventh Victim, Ursula Andress her replacement – in order to take up a contracted role in the remake of Stagecoach (1966). Her over-sexed screen persona had caused playwright William Inge to remove his name from Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965).

One of the hottest young stars in the business, she intended to stay that way, and her portrayal of Melba in The Cincinnati Kid pretty much fitted in with audience expectation. She was in such demand that she was under contract to make a total of 17 pictures for five separate studios plus Frank Sinatra’s independent production company. Her deals were with Universal (six pictures), Fox (four), MGM (three), Columbia (three) and United Artists (one). But after dropping out of Marriage on the Rocks (1965) with Sinatra her output for the rest of the decade comprised one movie apiece for Paramount, MGM, Fox and Columbia and four independent pictures in Italy.

MGM spent big bucks promoting the picture and, in particular, the Ann-Margret connection. The studio had put a marker down on Thanksgiving 1965 for the launch date, but was marketing the movie more than six months ahead, the kind of exposure that was normally only allotted to roadshow features.

SOURCES: Christopher Sandford, McQueen: The Biography, Harper Collins paperback (2002) pages 165, 170-176; Penina Spiegel, Steve McQueen: The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood,  Collins, 1986, p162, 169-173; “Ransohoff To Start Five Films in 6-Month Period,” Box Office, June 17, 1963, p27; “Marty Ransohoff To Seek Code Changes,” Box Office, November 25, 1963, p6; “Ann-Margret Into The Cash Splash,” Variety, July 22, 1964, p5; advert, Box Office, October 9, 1964, p9; “More Cincinnati Kid Books,” Box Office, October 24, 1964, pW-5; “Refuse Spencer Tracy Xincy Kid Script Okay So Actor Takes Powder,” Variety, November 11, 1964, p24; “Jewison Replacement for Sam Peckinpah,” Variety, December 9, 1964, p24; Advert, Variety, March 10, 1965, p80; “Fear Ann-Margret Going Wrongo In Her Screen Image,” Variety, March 24, 1965, p5; “Fox Holds Ann-Margret To Stagecoach, Denying Her For Mastroianni,” Variety, April 14, 1965, 4; Advert, Variety, May 19, 1965, p20.

Ocean’s 11 (1960) ***

Heist pictures break down into planning, execution and reprisal. Here the planning stage moves at a leisurely pace, a bit of recruitment, and setting up bitebacks that will cripple the military-precision plan by ex-army buddies to rob five Las Vegas casinos of millions of dollars on New Year’s Eve. There’s a bit of reversal, Mr Big (Akim Tamiroff) is a collection of nervous tics, Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) a rich guy seeking financial independence from a possessive mother, Sam Harmon (Dean Martin) having second thoughts about the operation, and Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) trying to win back estranged wife Beatrice (Angie Dickinson) who surmises he prefers danger to intimacy. Mostly, it’s repartee between Harmon and Ocean while Foster makes a chump out of his mother’s next potential husband Duke Santos (Cesar Romero).

There’s not much hi-tech about the audacious plan, knocking out the electricity supply to the casinos, the switch to auxiliary power allowing the gang access to the inner sanctum where the cash is held, finding their way in and out of the darkness by nothing more sophisticated than luminous spray paint, and with a clever ruse to get the money out once all hell breaks loose.

The fun starts when one of the team (Richard Conte) drops dead post-raid and it transpires Santos is a big-shot underworld figure who investigates the robbery on behalf of the casinos and starts tracking the gang down, leading to a pay-off you don’t see coming.

Given the comedy element, there’s no great tension but it’s a pleasant enough diversion and Sinatra and Martin display an easy camaraderie that lights up the screen. It could have been funded by the Las Vegas Tourist Bureau so much attention is given to the wonder of the casinos, at a time when gambling was still only otherwise legal on racetracks, and with snippets of floorshows and the deluxe atmosphere. Add in a couple of numbers delivered a couple of times by Dean Martin (“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”), legitimately since he is a cocktail bar singer, and Sammy Davis Jr. (“Eee-O-11”), somewhat shoehorned-in given he is a truck driver.

There’s a couple of neat reversals: Ocean’s dumped girlfriend Adele (Patrice Wymore) gets short shrift from Beatrice when she reveals the affair; casino bosses offered a double-or-quits gamble refuse to consider such a dangerous notion. Red Skelton and George Raft have credited cameos, Shirley MacLaine does not. As well as Richard Conte, Henry Silva (The Secret Invasion, 1964) has a small part as does Norman Fell (The Graduate, 1967).

Although there are on occasion outdated sexist attitudes, there is also a strong anti-racist statement in the hiring of Sammy Davis Jr., showcasing his talents in a big-budget picture, and clearly making the point that he has been welcomed by stars as big as Sinatra and Martin.  

And it’s worth also considering the picture in terms of early-onset brand management.  The “Rat Pack” was a loose group of entertainers which not only became a well-known stand-alone entity in its own right that celebrated what was considered “hip” at the time (assuming you excluded Elvis and his ilk), but as individuals supported each other on television and in live performance. They would make another two pictures as a team and another dozen or so where two or more of the players appeared. The principals were all major attractions at the nascent Las Vegas so they were also promoting their home patch. During the day they made the movie, at night they wove in and out of each others’ acts, creating an entertainment sensation. On top of that, Sinatra had his own record label Reprise – among the early acts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. So, in a sense, all this cross-promotion was money in their pockets.

Also of note are the opening and closing, the former for the credits devised by Saul Bass, the latter for the famous shot later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. Ironically, Lewis Milestone, who devised the original shot, and long before that won two Best Director Oscars, is less well regarded these days than Tarantino.

Machine Gun McCain (1969) ***

Armed robbers lack the finesse of a jewel thief or burglar when it comes to pulling off a major heist. Rather than resorting to the weaponry of the title, they are more inclined, as John Cassavetes does here, to plant bombs, both as a diversionary tactic and within the target building, in this case a Las Vegas casino.

Although boasting Hollywood leads in Cassavetes and Peter Falk and rising Swedish leading lady Britt Ekland (The Double Man, 1967) and wife of star Peter Sellers, this was an Italian-made gangster thriller with the usual abundance of location work. Minus the romantic complications of A Fine Pair (1968), it concentrates on the machinations of the central characters. And it is a pretty lean machine. The robbery takes place against the background of warring Mafia chieftains, West coast boss Falk trying to muscle in on a Vegas casino without being aware it is controlled by the New York hierarchy. Cassavetes does not realize the robbery has been set up by his naïve son on behalf of Falk. Ekland is on board as a kind of mostly mute magician’s assistant, helping Cassavetes.

Little dialogue comes Cassavetes’ way, either, which plays to his strength, that glowering intense unpredictable weasel-face, whose reactions are less likely to be emotional than violent. Falk gets the dialogue and little help it does him, his goose is cooked when he has the temerity to shout at the New York kingpin. 

Yet this slimmed-down documentary-style hard-nosed picture in the vein of Point Blank (1967) manages several touching moments, even more effective for completely lacking sentimentality. When Cassavetes’ son is knifed in the back, the gangster finishes him off with a burst from the titular machine gun rather than see him suffer. His old flame Gene Rowlands, making too brief an appearance, has a wall covered in newspaper headlines of herself with Cassavetes when she was his moll and she accepts without enmity the new woman in his life and she proves the toughest moll of all when confronted with Mafia gunslingers.  

The planning of the heist is well done, no explanatory dialogue, just action on screen; there’s a car chase; and the gangster dragnet is unexpectedly powerful. Gabriele Ferzetti (the railroad baron in Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) is excellent as the calm authoritative New York boss, Falk a bit too excitable, and Florinda Balkan (The Last Valley, 1971), in her third screen role, has a small part as a traitorous moll. Ekland is surprisingly good with not much to play with, a couple of lines here and there but still emoting with her face.

Cassavetes, who always claimed he was only acting to fill in the time between directing  (Faces, 1968), and as a means of financing them, was at a career peak, Oscar-nominated for The Dirty Dozen (1967) and male lead in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). He had just appeared in another Italian gangster movie Bandits in Rome (1968). Cassavetes and Falk would go on to have a fruitful partnership over another five films. Falk and Ekland had played opposite each other in Too Many Thieves (1967). Falk also had an Oscar nod behind him for Murder Inc. (1961) but his career was about to go in a different direction after the TV movie Presciption: Murder (1968) that introduced Columbo.

Trivia trackers might also note a score by Ennio Morricone. Though not one of his best, a few years later he would deliver one of his most memorable themes for Sacco and Vanzetti (1971) for the same director Giuliano Montaldo.