After all that careful cogitating over why M.G.M. chose to go with a downbeat ending to “The Cincinnati Kid” rather than the marginally more hopeful one, I find that, in fact, M.G.M. ordered up the happier fadeout over the director’s Norman Jewison’s objections. So far from flying in the face of an establish Hollywood tradition, M.G.M. actually upheld it.
I think that the film works either way. The Kid isn’t a rotten enough character than you really want to see him lose everything, but as Jewison pointed out (thank God for DVD commentaries!) he views poker as a game of winners and losers and the Kid lost–period.
McQueen certainly made other films that didn’t end triumphantly–he gets re-captured in “The Great Escape,” gets shot in “The Sand Pebbles” and gets railroaded and hanged in “Tom Horn”–but on the whole he doesn’t carry that aura of being one of life’s losers, so perhaps the executives at M.G.M. were wary of ending a McQueen film on so uncompromising a note.
Now I’m curious as to how and why Jewison’s downbeat ending even saw the light of day. Was this perhaps a version of the film released in Europe? Did it come from the director’s personal archive? Oddly enough having seen the film years ago all that I really remembered was that Edward G. Robinson was in it and it was the poker version of “The Hustler,” thus I took the “McQueen loses all” version as being the one I had originally seen! Not the first time, I got it all bass ackwards.