One title occasionally surfacing on “best poker movie” lists is a not-too-well-known British film titled Kaleidoscope starring Warren Beatty and Susannah York.
While the inclusion of poker in the 1966 adventure comedy might prove intriguing to fans of the game, it doesn’t save what’s ultimately a flashy yet thin James Bond imitation.
In fact, some have tried to characterize Kaleidoscope as an uncredited adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale (filmed a year later in 1967, then again in 2006). Although here the hero is a thief, not a spy, with international settings and a high-stakes game of cards with a villain being the chief parallels.
In any case, Kaleidoscope obviously tried to capture the same audience that had flocked to the early Sean Connery entries in the Bond series in the 1960s, with its use of poker following other recently-released features such as The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966).
Kaleidoscope: Chemin de Fer
In Kaleidoscope, Beatty stars as Barney Lincoln, an American in Europe pursuing an elaborate (and more than a little absurd) scheme to cheat casinos by doctoring the plates from which are printed the Kaleidoscope brand playing cards they all use.
Soon he crosses paths with a fetching blonde dress designer, Angel McGinnis (played by York), who swiftly joins him as a romantic companion.
Lincoln is hastily presented as a kind of generic “playboy” type. Angel, too, isn’t given much depth as a character, engaging in banter with Lincoln that sounds like it is supposed to be witty and/or suggestive, but most of the time is neither.
The two of them have a quick, flirty encounter, then we follow Lincoln as he breaks into the Kaleidoscope manufacturing plant to accomplish his task of doctoring the plates.
The scheme works beautifully in game after game of high stakes Chemin de Fer (a baccarat variant). With the aid of a conspicuous pair of thick-framed eyeglasses, Lincoln can discern the markings on the backs of the cards and thus always knows the next card to come out of the shoe.
Indeed, we never see him lose a single hand as he racks up the European-style plaques used for betting in Monte Carlo, Baden-Baden, Deauville, and elsewhere.
The sequence is kind of tedious to watch, actually. Not only are we bored, Angel is, too, and she parts with him along the way to return to her London dress shop.
Soon Lincoln gains the attention of a certain inspector named Manny McGinnis (Clive Revill) who eventually brings him to Scotland Yard for questioning. Manny, it turns out, is Angel’s father -- she’s clued him into Lincoln’s gambling exploits -- and while it isn’t explained how, the inspector has discovered Lincoln’s cheating method.
The inspector meets with Lincoln, but rather than imprison him offers him a deal -- help him take down a longtime nemesis, a crime lord named Harry Dominion (Eric Porter).
Climax Hinges on Poker Game
It just so happens Dominion is in a vulnerable spot, cash-wise. And, conveniently, he loves poker. A plan is hatched for Lincoln to join a poker game with the villain at his casino and clean him out.
“I want the man ruined,” explains Manny. “Then we can forget your transgressions up to this point.” Thus do we arrive at the film’s midpoint and the start of the lengthy poker scene that takes up all but the finale.
While the plot irritatingly skims over explanations throughout, the presentation of the poker is strangely precise, starting with a detailed explanation of the rules followed by a careful, comprehensive presentation of hands. (The earlier baccarat scenes do not include such lengthy explanation.)
Like in The Cincinnati Kid, the poker variant featured in Kaleidoscope is five-card stud. The game is dealer’s choice, with draw or stud being the options, but the only game we ever see chosen is stud.
The mechanics of the game are presented quite well. In the first hand, Dominion opens for £50 with a king showing. One player calls, then a player named Lord Westerley raises to £100 with a four up. Lincoln has a four showing, too, and calls the raise, and ultimately five players stick around for third street.
The next card brings Lincoln a second four, and he bets £100. When Westerley draws an ace and raises to £600, that chases out everyone but Lincoln. Lincoln check-calls a bet of £1,000 on fourth, then when Westerley pairs his board on fifth he leads for £2,000.
Here’s what the two remaining players’ hands look like at that point:
Lincoln: (X)4♣ 4♠ 3♦ J♦
Westerley: (X)4♦ A♠ 10♥ 10♣
Breaking Down the Poker in Kaleidoscope
The action strongly suggests Westerley has an ace in the hole and has made aces up. Of course, with his special glasses Lincoln knows what Westerley has, and so when he raises to £22,000, we know Lincoln must have the case four as his down card.
The raise is called, and Westerley triumphantly shows his hole card, the A♦, for two pair. Lincoln then unsurprisingly turns over the 4♥ for trip fours. “The four was gone!” cries Westerley before he’s escorted out, although if we’ve been paying attention we know he was mistaken.
The hand is perhaps somewhat improbable, but not overly so. But it isn’t such a great one for illustrating how Lincoln’s ability to read the marked cards helps him win. The fact is, he’d probably have won the hand in similar fashion even without knowing for certain what Westerley had underneath.
If Lincoln didn’t know Westerley’s down card, the only one he’d need fear would be a ten. In fact, one of the other players who’d folded on third street had had a ten showing, meaning only one ten was left in the deck.
Additionally, for Westerley to raise on second with a ten in the hole and a four showing would have been highly unlikely -- that is, Lincoln would know he was almost certainly best with his trip fours even if he didn’t know Westerley had an ace down.
After winning some more, a problem arises for Lincoln when new decks are introduced into the game, also Kaleidoscope brand cards, but printed from different plates than the ones Lincoln had doctored. The introduction of the new cards is done wholly by accident, it seems, and not because Dominion knows Lincoln is cheating.
Now Lincoln can’t rely on knowing his opponents’ down cards. As expected, a monster five-card stud hand soon develops between Lincoln and Dominion. That hand, too, includes some improbabilities, including Dominion raising on third street with just a pair of tens while Lincoln has two kings showing.
Realistic Poker Bogs Down Action
I’ll leave aside telling how that hand plays out, although will note it takes seven full minutes to complete, including one stretch where Lincoln takes an entire minute before acting. Such delays might be realistic -- after all, we saw them every day at the WSOP this summer -- but don’t necessarily make for the most entertaining movie watching experience.
Even so, such drawn-out hands might have been more absorbing if not for the overall lack of suspense in Kaleidoscope. The card game is followed by more improbable action -- e.g., Angel willingly accompanying Dominion to his estate (?) -- and a conclusion that is neither gripping nor surprising.
Fans of British “mod” fashion and atmosphere might find Kaleidoscope interesting. There’s some campy appeal, too, especially in Porter’s occasionally hammy, over-the-top portrayal of Dominion. And, as I say, those with an interest in poker in film might be curious to check it out, too.
But the inclusion Kaleidoscope on “best poker movie” lists probably says more about the overall lack of good poker movies than the quality of this particular entry.
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Martin Harris is a poker writer and player and a part-time professor at UNC-Charlotte who teaches, among other things, a course on poker's role in American history and culture.
In a new bi-weekly column on PokerListings.com, Martin will be exploring the many ways poker and pop culture intersect. Read more work by Martin Harris on his own blog, Hard-Boiled Poker.