Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Killing Them Softly has us thinking of movies set in New Orleans.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
Before Rounders came along in 1998, anticipating the poker boom that would sweep the nation when the aptly named amateur Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series Of Poker, hardcore students of the game often cited The Cincinnati Kid as the definitive movie on the subject. But the irony of Norman Jewison’s moody noir drama is that the poker gameplay is utterly ridiculous: The biggest round of five-card stud in the film has Edward G. Robinson beating a full house—aces full of tens—with a jack-high straight flush, which is the type of hand that would get a dealer murdered in a Texas road game. Yet as a portrait of the gambler’s life, The Cincinnati Kid gets everything right, from the romance of cash rolls and easy women to the smoke-filled back rooms of markers and marks.
That atmosphere was important enough to Jewison that he shot the film on location in New Orleans, opening with Steve McQueen wending through a jazz funeral and continuing with a documentary-like credits sequence that marches along with a second-line brass band. (The Preservation Hall Jazz Band also makes an appearance.) McQueen stars as a Depression-era shark who has soaked up enough money around the city to earn him a reputation as the most promising young stud player around. But in order to be the best, he has to beat the best, which leads to a climatic confrontation with Robinson, reminiscent of Paul Newman’s duel with Jackie Gleason in The Hustler. Comparisons to The Hustler do it no favors—in part because pool is more naturally cinematic than poker, and Jewison is no Robert Rossen—but Jewison, along with screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern, evoke the city’s underbelly with the right mix of verity and stylization, and McQueen has the cool temperament of a pro.
Availability: Widely available on DVD, Amazon Instant, etc. The DVD may be worth seeking out for a commentary track by Celebrity Poker Showdown co-hosts Dave Foley and Phil Gordon.