It is the day of the "big" poker game in Laredo, Texas. The richest men in the state all gather on this particular day for a high-stakes game that is legendary throughout the state, having taken place over sixteen years. Undertaker Benson Tropp (Charles Bickford) careens through the Texas territory in his horse-drawn hearse, picking up the participants: lawyer Otto Habershaw (Kevin McCarthy), who abandons a closing argument in a murder trial to make the game; cattle-baron Henry Drummond (Jason Robards) skips out on his daughters wedding. When the three get to Sam's saloon in Laredo, they are joined by Jesse Buford (John Qualen) and Dennis Wilcox (Robert Middleton) and convene to the backroom of Sam's, leaving the bar-flies to hang out and conjecture about what might be happening behind the door of the invitation-only exclusive "big game."
Not much it turns out. The millionaires all know each other and the game proceeds without many changes except the height of the chips.
Then, as they are wont to do, a stranger comes into town. Meredith (Henry Fonda) is moving with his family—his wife Mary (Joanne Woodward) and son Jackie (Gerald Michenaud)—to buy a house and property in the neighboring county, but a busted wagon wheel keeps them put in Laredo until the blacksmith can repair it. They come to the crowded saloon to pass the time until the can get on the trail again.
The prim and proper family makes an add contrast to the rough and tumble saloon dwellers, but Meredith seems more comfortable in the honkytonk, and is genuinely interested in the poker game going on in the backroom when he gets wind of it. He gets "the gambler's itch" and pretty soon, he's eyeing the families stakes for the $500 to buy in. Mary argues with her husband that they've scrimped and saved for a long time for the stake and she doesn't want him risking it. Then, there's his gambling addiction, which he's resisted long enough for them to get that stake. But, that wagon-wheel needs fixing and if they just get a little more...The regulars at the poker table, particularly Drummond, object to Meredith joining, but Habershaw, taken with Mary, presses the others to let Meredith join the game.
Things start out okay—Meredith is only a passable poker player—but pretty soon, he's hooked and he starts to lose. He becomes increasingly agitated and starts looking the worse for wear. While Mary frets in the saloon, Meredith is sweating through some mediocre hands until he gets a hand that he knows he can win, but he doesn't have the money to meet Drummond's raised bet. The strain causes Meredith to collapse, stricken.
The town doctor (Burgess Meredith) is called, and he orders Meredith taken out of the room and back to his office for examination, leaving Mary in the situation to play the hand and either lose or keep the family farm. It does not bode well when she turns to Drummond and asks politely "How do you play this game?"
This is where A Big Hand for the Little Lady really gets interesting...and entertaining. Everything that has gone before is merely a set-up for the rest of the movie and how "the hand she is dealt" plays out.
A Big Hand for the Little Lady crosses a couple of genres. It is, on the surface, a western, that form that allows the problems of today to be seen in a silvered mirror of the past, making the issues complicated in today's world, simpler and deconstructed and standing out in fine relief. It is, in some instances, a comedy, in how it sets up a male-female tension. And it is a satire of how men can be "played," especially by forces that may be outside of their comfort zones.
But, it is also something of a feminist tract (Don't run away, boys, the film is entertaining) and might serve as an audio-visual aid to "The Feminine Mystique," illustrating the secret power of women (not so much hidden, but societally repressed) in a world dominated by subjugating men. It is fascinating to behold not only in a western, but also in something so light (when its equivalent is present in the darker, more resolute—and, one has to admit "camp"—Johnny Guitar). That is part of the delight of the construction and the big pay-out for A Big Hand for the Little Lady.