Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Betting on an Inside Straight Flush

Let’s say a young actor or actress gets cast in a period piece movie nowadays. It can be any period you want to name, the result will be the same. Exhaustive research will be performed to make sure that every last detail of the period will be recreated. Hairstyles will be those which were in fashion at the time, furniture will not have been built before the year in question, dialogue will contort itself to use the most familiar elements of slang that have been passed on to our contemporary time, and most importantly, there will be music included which has been certified authentic and accurate to have been created within five years of the period of the movie.

But, you know, one thing that doesn’t always happen is the actors portraying living, breathing human beings who happen to be individuals, not representations of the expectations we have for a particular era of history. It turns out, the more you look into things, the more you realize that people have pretty much always been human beings, full of foibles, quirks, positive and negative actions and thoughts.

All of which brings me to a 1965 flick I’m ready to recommend to y’all. It’s called “The Cincinnati Kid,” and it makes very little effort to convince us that any of these people had a clue what the fashions were in the early 1930s, when the story happens to have been set. In fact, it makes very little effort to convince us that there is any reason for the story to have been set outside of 1965, aside from the liberal use of old Model T Fords and such-like automobiles.

Let me tell you, though, these characters live and breathe, and the actors pay close attention to revealing little nuances of character. Nobody is exactly angelic, nobody is evil. You do root for one guy to come out on top, but that’s just because the story is told from his point of view, not because he happens to be morally better than anybody else.

Ann Margaret and Tuesday Weld look for all the world like the hot-shot young actresses they were in 1965. Their hair, make-up, and clothes do not correspond to fashions of the 30s, at all. But, they can both break your heart with the insights they reveal. Weld is the farmer’s daughter moving to the big city, wanting to be loved for the rest of her life, wanting to be sophisticated, daring, in charge. Margaret is her a few years down the line, bored with the life she achieved, the husband who doesn’t love her, the men who she tries to seduce just to shake things up.

Then there are their men. Steve McQueen was at the height of his powers back in those days, when he could convey more with a strained look or a tilt of his head than many actors can do with pages of dialogue. He loves Weld, but isn’t sure what that means. He is ambitious, wanting to take his skills at poker to the top of the game by beating Edward G. Robinson’s character, the acknowledged Man of the time. Karl Malden plays Margaret’s husband, a straight-shooting card player who takes no chances, who doesn’t want to risk his reputation for honesty, and who refuses to put his wife before his reputation.

Much happens in the two hours of this film. Some of the most tense poker playing scenes ever filmed, for example. A vicious cock fight (filmed back in the day, I presume, before animals weren’t allowed to be harmed in movies, though there is no blood in this battle). A half-hearted seduction. Card tricks to win over Weld’s parents. A very cool chase sequence in a rail yard. Robinson’s masterful understatement as a man who is used to the good life, who is afraid it will end and yet confident he can outwit anybody. Bribery and cheating. Slaps in the face. Punches in the nose.

Just don’t expect anybody to look like its 1933, and you’ll have a great time.

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