One of the most enjoyable screen tests is when a big star pits his ability against a great actor. I’m thinking here of Dustin Hoffman v Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man and later on Tom Cruise v Dustin Hoffman in the Rain Man or Michael Caine v Laurence Olivier in Sleuth. In those films the big star more than acquitted himself. In the Cincinnati Kid Steve McQueen, a box office draw after his third film, came up against one of the best actors Hollywood has ever produced – Edward G Robinson – in a movie about a poker game in 1930s New Orleans. Steve McQueen aka Mr Cool, as he was known, brought a whole generation of kids to the cinema with his action roles and pale blue-eyed stare under a furrowed brow.
Edward G Robinson, born Emmanuel Goldenburg, learned his trade in the Yiddish Theatre in New York. He had the disadvantage of a toad-like face so he was never handsome enough for stardom but his peerless acting ability at first in gangster roles like Little Caesar ensured he reached the top by acting ability alone.
That he did not stay there was not because of losing that ability, or poor casting, but he fell foul of the Macarthy Commission as he was a noted philanthropist and liberal and gave some of his $250,000 donations to some borderline Communist causes. He had a notable collection of art too but lost this in a messy divorce.
The theme of this film, directed by Norman Jewison, is a well-worn one of ‘new kid on the block’ v the old hand. Robinson breezes into town to play stud poker, against the kid. In the final sequence they are the only two left on the table except for the dealer played by Karl Malden. Robinson has the jack for a flush which wins. It’s a memorable bit of cinema as very little red is used in the previous scenes, except for a cock fight and the red eyed jack is contrasted with blue of the kid’s eyes. The romantic scenes – with Tuesday Weld and Ann Margret – do not work quite as well as the intensity over the card table but no matter.
Steve McQueen shows he is a considerable actor. He was known for being competitive and difficult, there was an enormous row over who gets above who in the top billing of The Blazing Inferno with Paul Newman and Yul Brynner did not appreciate his scene-stealing by adjusting his hat in The Magnificent Seven.
The anti-McQueen lobby also refer to him gathering up every prop and piece of wardrobe after every shot. In fact he went to reform school and would take the clothes back to the reform school for the inmates. This is the best card film ever, well worth seeing again, and its success and appeal is certainly due to some fine acting by Steve McQueen.