Book into Film – “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)

Richard Jessup’s brilliant 1963 novel was so short – barely 150 pages – it was almost custom-made for the movies. While it built up the tension to the confrontation between young stud poker contender The Cincinnati Kid (Steve McQueen in the film) and the reigning world champ Lancey Hodges (Edward G. Robinson) and covered the on-off relationship between the Kid and Christian (Tuesday Weld), a large chunk of the novel was in effect an insider’s guide to the world of poker and its unwritten rules.

As appeared always to be the case in translating novels to films, there were some incidental changes. The Kid was 26 in the book, but clearly in his 30s in the film. Lancey’s surname became Howard. In the book he was thin, in the film well-upholstered. Melba (Ann-Margret), the girlfriend of Shooter (Karl Malden) is not given a name in the book. The book is set in St Louis, the film in New Orleans.

But the book lacks sub-plots. It’s a straightforward narrative. The Kid decides to take on Lancey and while waiting for the game to be fixed up, having effectively broken up with Christian, he takes a 20-hour bus journey out to see her at her farm, returns on his own and for the rest of the book is involved in the poker duel with Lancey. Incidental characters make an appearance, Shooter as the dealer, some others including Pig (Jack Weston) making up the poker table.

The book doesn’t open with the Kid hustling, playing in a run-down part of town against inferior players, being accused of cheating, getting involved in a punch-up and being chased across a railroad yard. That’s all the invention of the scriptwriters Terry Southern (Barbarella, 1968) and Ring Lardner Jr. (Mash, 1970). The young shoeshine boy who interacts with the Kid several times throughout the movie doesn’t appear in the book either. And there was no cockfight in the book, that was also added by the screenwriters.

These were small devices to develop screen character. The punch-up showed that the Kid could take care of himself. The scenes with the shoeshine boy suggested that the Kid had begun early as a compulsive gambler, always measuring himself against an older player. And those scenes also demonstrated that gambling was not a sport for the kind-hearted. An actor with less confidence in his screen persona than McQueen might have insisted that he did not take the boy’s losing bet. (Such considerations are not rare – Robert Redford, for example, refused to play lawyer Frank Galvin in The Verdict unless the character was changed from being an alcoholic). The cockfight revealed that the characters mostly lived in an illegal world – the cops might turn a blind eye to a poker game in a private room in a hotel but would frown upon a bloody and brutal sport like cockfighting.

Sometimes, the screenwriters had to embellish certain scenes to bring them alive. The sequence where the Kid won over Christian’s parents with his card tricks is nothing more than a sentence in the book and characters like Pig are fleshed out.

But the most significant alterations to the book were the additions of two sub-plots. The first had Shooter, while acting as dealer, risk his reputation by agreeing to flip the Kid an occasional good card. This comes from being blackmailed by wealthy businessman Slade (Rip Torn) who threatens to call in Shooter’s marker, his gambling debt. Not only is this idea a screenwriter creation, but the character of Slade does not exist in the book. In fact, the whole idea runs against the unwritten code of honor among big-time poker players. And it would be extremely unlikely that Shooter would stoop so low. Even if broke, he would be able to eventually win back a stake. But if caught facilitating cheating his name would be mud and he would never play poker again in his life.

The second sub-plot concerns Melba (Ann-Margret). She exists on the periphery in the book. But she is something of a character, a genuine class act among the women who follow the game or are in relationships with the players. In the book, she was believed to have had a college education because “she read thick books and she dressed New York”  and she attended arthouse cinemas. She was also admired for sticking with Shooter when his luck turned bad.

That’s not the character in the film. While not a gambler per se, she has a competitive streak and cheats at ordinary games – solitaire, jigsaw puzzles – where it makes no sense to cheat. In the book she is merely “beautiful;” in the film she turns into a man-eater, seducing the Kid, an action that went against her character in the book.

You would harldy argue that these sub-plots impaired enjoyment of the film. Perhaps those who read the  book first might object. But, as ever, in examining what happens to books once they are bought up for the movies, each film examined is an example of the difference between a book and a film and how screenwriters compensate for perceived flaws. Some books, Blindfold, for example, required wholesale changes. Here, while the key storyline works like a charm, what was missing were the extra beats to ramp up the tension, otherwise there would be too long a wait in hanging around for the poker game to start. As a result of the sub-plots, what is put in jeopardy is the Kid’s relationship with Christian and his purity of involvement in the game itself, not just that any hint of cheating would bar him from the game, but that he wanted to beat Lancey fair and square so that, should he achieve that ambition, he would never have cause to doubt how he managed it.

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.