Films set in luminescent casinos conjure up evocative mental images of bright lights or dark rooms filled with blackjack tables, roulette wheels and rolls of the dice. Just think of the Ocean’s Eleven franchise – now onto its fourth film with Ocean’s 8 – the Edward Norton and Matt Damon-starring Rounders or the granddaddy of them all, Martin Scorsese’s Casino.
Gambling movies can be like sports movies in the sense that it can be hard to convey on-screen the sheer thrill of the game or give a sense of the rules in most cases – but they’re not all like that. Here are a few that stand out for unique reasons of their own. While there’s a strong possibility that you may have heard of at least some of these films, it’s likely you haven’t seen all of them. So, here’s an introduction for the uninitiated – or a reminder to re-watch for casino movie aficionados.
No, not that one, and no, not that one either. The other one. Yes, there’s another one. This is a real oddity and film fans and gambling fans really should seek it out. It marks the first time the character of James Bond appeared on a screen. It’s a television play, aired as an instalment of the anthology series Climax which ran in the US from 1954 to 58. Casino Royale aired in 1954. In it, the American agent (yes) Jimmy Bond (yes again) is played by recognisable American actor Barry Nelson.
This is nothing like the Bond you know but it has a definite curiosity value. The plot boils down to Bond having to play cards against the bad guy. Unlike the other one, it’s not meant to be funny though it has to be considered creaky when viewed by today’s standards. It does however feature a few elements that Bond fans will recognise, a character named Leiter for one, and there’s also the character of Le Chiffre who would also show up in the 2006 version. It shows up on TCM from time to time; it’s short and as a welcome bonus, it’s got Peter Lorre (from 1931’s M) as Le Chiffre. That’s enough reason to seek it out.
The late film director Robert Altman really could turn his hand to anything. He had a clinical eye for detail and he frequently allowed actors to talk over each other in a scene to add to the sense of realism. He parodied war in M.A.S.H. all the way back in 1970, shone a spotlight on Hollywood in 1992’s The Player; and turned his attention to gambling in California Split in 1974. M.A.S.H. star Elliot Gould joins George Segal in a story that’s really more concerned with their friendship than it is with casinos and gambling.
Nevertheless, card games are their thing and the impetus that drives the story forward, and to cut a long story short, they wind up taking a trip to Reno to try their hand in a high-stakes Texas Hold’em game that changes both their lives. California Split had an interesting journey to the screen, not least in the number of starring names that were mooted at one point or another (Steve McQueen, Robert De Niro and Peter Falk – imagine those three in a movie). As it is, it’s a very entertaining movie with a super cast and a director pretty much at the top of his game at the time, though as he would admit himself, not a lot of people knew that.
If you’re a fan of this type of movie then you’re likely to have recently seen The Gambler with Mark Wahlberg. In case you didn’t already know it, that’s a remake of this 1974 film by Czech director Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment). It’s got an intense James Caan in the lead role and the plot is essentially the same as the remake; a college professor borrows his way into a big wad of trouble.
The Gambler has a great cast of recognisable faces including Burt Young, M. Emmet Walsh and even James Woods crops up. It’s got a great ending too. Caan returned to the subject frequently throughout his career, in Honeymoon in Vegas with Nicolas Cage in 1992, in 2000’s Luckytown and on TV in the aptly titled Las Vegas. Apparently, on this film, Caan and his director couldn’t stand each other. Seek it out, you won’t be disappointed.
Here’s pedigree for you. Hard Eight the first feature film directed by multiple Oscar nominee (how sad to use that phrase) Paul Thomas Anderson, director of There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice. It features a great cast including John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow who star alongside Philip Baker Hall and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, both of whom would eventually become Anderson regulars.
Reilly’s character John goes from being very down on his luck to being a successful professional gambler once he falls under the wing and tutelage of Baker Hall’s Sydney, with whom he develops a father-son relationship. Friction ensues though when John falls for Paltrow’s Clementine. The film is wonderfully atmospheric and the story takes some very interesting turns. The performances are of the quality you’d expect from this lot, and the attention to detail is meticulous, a bit like our next entry.
English director Mike Hodges not only has Get Carter and Flash Gordon on his resume, but he also has a great casino movie to his name. Croupier has Clive Owen playing Jack, an aspiring novelist who’s working as a croupier in a London casino to make ends meet until his big break arrives. As the film progresses he becomes more and more immersed and interested in casino life and also in the lives of its customers. Jack is smart and well-studied in the intricacies of the job, but he’s also aloof, maintaining a professional detachment from (most of) the clientele, coldly narrating much of the film as if reading from his novel. Owen is superb; he clearly learned the skills of the croupier.
Croupier is beautifully put together and Hodges moves the film at his own pace. He creates a good sense of the mood and the atmosphere of the casino, which is populated with an interesting bunch of characters. Croupier’s casino scenes are eerily realistic at times and while the characters do use casino lingo throughout the film, it isn’t imperative (yet recommended) that you understand the terminology to get what’s happening on-screen. Seek this out, it shouldn’t be hard to find.