In the dusty West just before the turn of the 20th century, there are few things more exciting than the annual, extremely-competitive poker tournament held by the five richest men of the Laredo territory. They play in the back room of a saloon while a crowd eagerly awaits the outcome of the tournament.

(Image via Movie Poster Shop)
(Image via Movie Poster Shop)

The competitors are willing to give up anything to partake in the game. Henry Drummond (Jason Robards, Jr.) left his daughter’s wedding so he wouldn’t be late for the tournament; Benson Tropp (Charles Bickford) is an undertaker, but is willing to put his business aside for as long as the tournament takes; lawyer Otto Habershaw (Kevin McCarthy) abandoned a client in order to compete; Dennis Wilcox (Robert Middleton) abandoned his cash-making herd of cattle for the day; merchant Jesse Buford (John Qualen) closed up shop. It’s a huge event that practically shuts down the town.

The game drags on for more than a day, and on the second day of the tournament, Meredith (Henry Fonda) arrives in town with his wife, Mary (Joanne Woodward), and son, Jackie (Gerald Michenaud). A trying-to-reform gambler himself, Meredith can’t resist the temptation to join in on the tense competition.

A Big Hand for the Little Lady was directed by Fielder Cook.

*NOTE: This is another one of those films where I’ve decided to give away less information in my introduction than most of the plot synopses that are around online for the film, including TCM’s one-line summary. The review portion of this post will include those mild spoilers. Read with caution.

Gamblin’ men in classic films usually aren’t very good people. The characters of A Big Hand for the Little Lady are no exception. They’re big talkers, quite rude, and certainly ruthless in their determination to win the game.

Fonda’s character of Meredith may not be as much of a crap-talker as the other men, but he’s perhaps even more unlikable, willing to give up all of his family’s money in pursuit of what he thinks will be a sure-fire win. (And it never is a win.)

(Image via Culturo Monde)
(Image via Culturo Monde)

Luckily for Meredith, his wife is a total badass. Joanne Woodward is the shining star of this film (which the title kind of gives away, as Henry Fonda would never be described as a “little lady”). When her husband’s health stops him from finishing the game, she fights for her family, first arguing with the gamblers to try to get their money back and then joining the game in attempt to win it back, though she says she knows nothing about poker.

The film becomes quite tense, as Mary competes in the game and Meredith’s fate remains unclear. The men don’t draw back any of their rudeness just because a woman has entered the game. If anything, they become even less likable, talking down to her and being disrespectful simply because she’s a woman. She doesn’t let it phase her, continuing to stand up to them.

She seems like a strong and honorable woman, though more is revealed about her in the film’s truly surprising ending, which I won’t spoil.

Though the story of A Big Hand for the Little Lady holds the viewer’s interest quite well, the film is especially worth a watch for Joanne Woodward’s fascinating character and performance… and that twist ending! The score: 4/5