Lonnegan: “Your boss is quite a card player, Mr. Kelly; how does he do it?”
Hooker: “He cheats!”
[ Robert Shaw to Robert Redford, “The Sting” (1973)]
Gambling, hustling, grifting, cheating, lying and deceiving. These are characteristics that can apply to many things. You can see it in personal relationships. You can see it in business. You can see it in politics. As a matter of fact, on a more basic level, you can see it whenever someone or some group wants to gain an advantage over either someone else or some other group whether it’s legal or not. For Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House on the Network TV show, “House,” one of his favorite lines as a medical doctor trying to find the cause of a patient’s malady is always summed up by his blunt assessment that “Everybody Lies!” For gambling that can be especially true. In motion pictures, gambling is a popular subject that has been utilized over and over again (in cards, pool, horseracing, etc.) where the actions of lying, bluffing and even cheating make for good drama. This month’s post will cover gambling in the movies showing how it has been utilized in various ways as an essential element for some great films. So, without further delay, let us begin.
Gambling was a popular subject in Russian literature, and the authors’ Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Pushkin each wrote a memorable story involving gambling that was later made into a movie. Dostoyevsky, who was addicted to gambling in real life, wrote the 1866 short novel, “The Gambler” which was adapted into the movie, “The Great Sinner” (1949) starring Gregory Peck. Peck starred as Fedya, a Russian writer who, while traveling to Paris is attracted to Pauline (Ava Gardner) who is a gambling addict as is her father. Fascinated, Fedya decides to observe the effects of gambling by doing a character study of gambling addicts. Unfortunately, once he falls in love with Pauline and tries to help her and her father out of their financial predicament by taking up gambling himself, he sets the stage for his own self-destruction. Although “Sinner” was a big-budget MGM Studio financed film, it was a slow moving and boring big-budget flop which bore little resemblance to the Dostoyevsky novel. However, for Pushkin, the cinematic adaption of his 1834 short story was far better and made into the similarly named British film, “The Queen of Spades” (1949).
“Spades” tells the story of Captain Suvorin (Anton Walbrook), a Russian officer in St. Petersburg in 1806. Coming from a poor working-class background, approaching middle age, and spurned by the wealthier officers around him, he discovers that, supposedly, the grandmother (Edith Evans) of one of those officers sold her soul to the Devil in exchange for learning the secret of winning at the card game of Faro. Obsessed, he stops at nothing to learn her secret. Unfortunately, like they always say: “Be careful what you wish for!” In the late forties, the British made a number of good pictures involving the supernatural like “Dead of Night” (1945), “The Rocking Horse Winner” (1949), and this film. Although “Spades” was made on a shoestring budget, it’s a terrific movie unlike “Sinner”. Director Thorold Dickinson, came onboard with less than five days’ notice to direct when the production was close to collapse at the personal request of Anton Walbrook and his direction is exceptional. His use of black and white cinematography is outstanding with darkness and shadows everywhere. Scenes are also presented at distorted angles which add to the other worldliness of it all while instilling a sense of unease. It is spooky, and the indoor portions of the film whether in an old bookstore, the grandmother’s house, or the casino itself invoke a feeling of dread. Walbrook, who may be best known as the cruel and unfeeling Boris Lermontov, the dance company impresario for the film classic, “The Red Shoes” (1948) is even better here. He has no redeeming social values. He is scheming and self-serving, an individual who is petty, thin-skinned and brooding, a total manipulative Bastard with a Napoleonic complex. You may hate him but he is fascinating, and it’s one Hell of a performance. The ace of spades may be deemed unlucky, but after seeing this film, the Queen of Spades might just trump the ace!
A number of gambling movies have been made that take place in casinos with mixed results regarding their quality. You can have “bad” [“Any Number Can Play” (1949)], “average” [“Casino” (1995)], and “good” [“Casino Royale” (2006) and Daniel Craig’s debut as James Bond]. However, more often than not, there are far more casino movies about individuals trying to rob them rather than gamble in them. Actually, some of the best gambling movies have this as a storyline. Now of course there are some really bad gambling heist movies too like “5 Against the House” (1955) where four college students conspire to rob the Reno, Nevada “Harold’s Club” just for fun (!!!). Yeah, right! That’s about as believable as someone wanting to rob Fort Knox because they could use a few gold ingots as door stops in their home. It also didn’t help that the four (so called) “students” were played by Guy Madison, Brian Keith, Kerwin Mathews, and Alvy Moore who, if they were actually students, all looked so old that they must have been flunking courses for over a decade or more.
Another bunch of lousy casino heist-movies were the “Oceans’ Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, etc.” series of movies (2001-07) along with an exclusively all female version, “Ocean’s 8” (2018). The original “Ocean’s 11” (1960) was at least, sort of fun, as long as you like seeing the old Sinatra/Dean Martin/Sammy Davis Jr. “Rat Pack” crowd roaming around Las Vegas trying to rob casinos but basically watching the bunch of them joking and kibitzing around. Unfortunately, the other “Ocean” movies all fall into the same wash, rinse, repeat cycle of leader, Danny Ocean (George Clooney once again, playing George Clooney) getting a heist team together (Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, etc.) to either rob a casino(s) or something tied into a casino/(mean) casino owner/rich guy and, after a dozen unexpected twists/setbacks, a final “BIG TWIST” results in all of them being triumphant while mugging into the camera to show off their pretty, capped teeth. At this point, if any of you reading this last sentence is diabetic, now might be the time to get that shot of insulin (with a Maalox chaser). The biggest problem with these movies is that the first one was barely tolerable but at least you could watch a bunch of big-name Hollywood stars acting and clowning around together including Julia Roberts (speaking of teeth…). However, after seeing, basically, the same thing over and over again you’d probably rather prefer flossing your own teeth with some barbed wire instead. Fortunately, there have been a number of very good gambling casino heist movies which I will now highlight. Two of them happen to be French and the third, is from Great Britain.
The first, is the French casino heist film, “Bob le flambeur (the Gambler)” (1956) directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Bob (Roger Duchesne) is a former bank robber/convict who has gone straight for twenty years. Instead of bank robbing he has reinvented himself by becoming a professional gambler and has done reasonably well during all of those years. However, when the movie begins, he has gone through a long gambling dry spell leaving him broke and desperate. So desperate in fact, that when an opportunity arises to plan a heist of a large amount of cash from a nearby casino, he jumps at the chance. Melville was a top-notch director of French crime films [”Le Doulos” (1962), etc.], and this is one of his best. He greatly admired American gangster films, and his movies were adept at showing the step by step planning of how criminals perform their various illegal activities with little hesitation or ambiguity. There is a matter-of-fact professionalism in how individuals’ act in Melville’s portrait of the French underworld both for criminals and for law enforcement. In this world, the white haired and now middle-aged Bob seems out of place with his relaxed, honorable, and cultured air of sophistication vs. the crude and treacherous individuals that he too often has to associate with. Like most heist films, there is always something that goes wrong which also ultimately happens in “le flambeur”. However, when it happens here, it unexpectedly invokes a smile, rather than a frown. Hopefully, it will do the same for you too!
The next French casino heist film is “Any Number Can Win” (1963). “Win” stars Jean Gabin as Charles, who, after doing a five year stretch for robbery, immediately starts planning a heist at a gambling casino in Cannes. He enlists the aid of Francis (Alain Delon), a young petty thief who he met in prison to act as an affluent high-roller to gain needed inside information of the casino before the robbery. This film was also a fine casino heist film with a fine performance by Gabin and a surprising performance by Delon. Why surprising, you may ask Dear Reader? Well I found it surprising because it might be the only film that I ever saw Alain Delon in where he actually did something called… acting! I have loss count of the number of times this pretty boy asshole has strutted around in movies acting like some sort of French version of Richard Gere where it seemed like he never met a mirror that he didn’t want to stop and take a look at himself in. Also, like too many French actors (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Paul Belmondo, etc.), whenever he was cast in a crime film it always seemed like he wore an oversized trench coat with a fedora pulled down on his head like a little “punk” Humphrey Bogart wannabe. However, in “Win,” even though he’s still plays a punk, he’s actually a convincing one. His character’s constant immature actions drive Charles to distraction. Delon makes dim-bulb Francis someone who likes his character’s affluent act so much (maybe because it helps him to woo a French dancer that he needs information from), that he starts to threaten the actual casino heist itself. Although he gets his act together and they successfully commit the heist, of course, ultimately things go wrong. By the end of the movie the look on his face as well as Gabin’s face is priceless! Maybe the only thing better would have been Gabin slapping Delon’s stupid face and watching him start to cry as the credits start rolling on the screen. Oh, well, I guess you can’t have everything!
The last of the casino heist films that I want to praise is different than the other two films as well as other heist films. This British film is a character study of an individual rather than a film specifically focused on a casino heist. The film is “Croupier” (1998). It stars Clive Owen as Jack, an unemployed writer and onetime croupier from South Africa who, to make ends meet, obtains a job as a croupier in a London casino through help from his small-time hustler dad currently living in South Africa. Jack soon discovers that he could use his time working there as source material for writing a novel. He also finds that he slowly moves from being just a passive observer to a participant seduced by the overall atmosphere of the casino while actively becoming involved in the lives of his fellow casino workers as well as an attractive and mysterious gambler named Jani (Alex Kingston). The film subtly explores the psychological aspects of working in a casino from an insider’s viewpoint while at the same time explores the personality of Jack. Owens gives an amazing and understated performance as Jack. As you hear his voiceovers while he is watching the casino action, he sounds detached and emotionally dead which fits his outwardly cool and stoic appearance to a T. He is intelligent and clever (even though away from the casino he too often wears a ridiculous hat that makes him look more like a Hassidic Jew than someone working in a casino). However, as we see him gain more information for writing his book, we also see him cheat on his live-in girlfriend, secretly break casino rules, lie and deceive others, and finally agree to be an accomplice in a casino robbery all in the same controlled and emotionally detached manner. In the end, the greatest trick that Jack ultimately pulls off is actually one on himself, which he acknowledges in the same cool and detached manner that he started with in the first place. “Croupier” is a great film. See it!
The last type of gambling film that I want to discuss is one where gambling is not the object, but the means to swindle or deceive someone. The first example is “House of Games” (1987) written and directed by David Mamet. It stars Lindsey Crouse as Margaret, a psychiatrist who, although a successful novelist, still feels unfulfilled in her life. For a change, she tries to actively help one of her patients, a gambling addict threatening suicide over a debt owed to Mike (Joe Mantegna), a criminal who owns a pool hall in a rough part of town. When she confronts Mike later that evening, he is surprisingly smart and charismatic. He is also willing to forgive the debt if Margaret will agree to do him one simple favor. That favor is to sit in as just an observer at a card game going on in the back room of his pool hall and while Mike is away, focus on a particular player, watch for his “tell”, and then convey the information back to Mike for his own use. When she does this, Margaret discovers that she enjoys the excitement of it all and wants to learn more about the world of con men as an information source for a possible future book. Although at first hesitant, Mike ultimately agrees. However, as I have said earlier: “Be careful what you wish for!” “Games” was the first directorial effort by the Pulitzer prize winning playwright (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) Mamet, and he explores the different types of con games perpetrated by Mike and his gang of accomplices. Unfortunately, as a director, Mamet makes a good playwright. Basically, he has no real visual style at all and this film, along with his other future directorial efforts have this same problem making “Games,” at times, too static and stagey. However, Mamet can really write dialogue, especially about low-life characters, and he elicits strong, realistic performances from his fine group of actors. His then wife, Crouse is excellent as someone looking for excitement and gets more than she bargains for, and Mantegna is equally good as someone sleazy yet charismatic enough that you still want to associate with him despite all of the apparent warning signs. In “House of Games” the trick is not the game, but whether its “you” being gamed!
The next example is “The Grifters” (1990) directed by Stephen Frears which focuses on three individuals. The first is Lilly (Anjelica Huston), a veteran con artist working for a bigtime mob bookmaker by making large cash bets at racetracks to lower the odds for long shots while secretly skimming some money on the side. The second is Roy (John Cusack), Lilly’s long-time estranged son, a loner who survives by doing two-bit nickel and dime “short” cons. The third is Myra (Annette Bening), Roy’s slightly older girlfriend who specializes in conning rich businessmen (the “long” con) although she is perfectly willing to do short cons or turn tricks to survive, and who needs a new partner (Roy) for her schemes. “Grifters’ author, Jim Thompson, was as hardboiled and nihilistic a crime fiction writer as there ever was and “Grifters” was one of his darkest. All three individuals are as cold-blooded, manipulative, and distrustful as it gets, with a stone where their heart should be. Frears direction is as hard, cold-blooded, and uncompromising as the characters the movie depicts. Betrayal, murder, and even an inferred theme of past incest is not abnormal in the world that Lilly, Roy and Myra inhabit. Frears, Bening, Huston, and the screenplay by acclaimed crime fiction writer Donald E. Westlake all received well deserved Oscar nominations. If you can stand it, “The Grifters” is a hardboiled classic!
As the last of my examples where gambling is not the object, but the means to swindle or deceive someone… and I think you are probably thinking, “Will you finally get to it already…” we have the mega-hit movie, “The Sting” (1973). This film starred a couple of fellas you might know by the name of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the leads. It’s a straight comedy/drama, and after the last two examples, I think we need one, “Don’t you?” Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a small time grifter in Joliet, Illinois during the Great Depression, who, after pulling off a successful con, unfortunately discovers that his victim was a numbers racket courier for a dangerous crime boss named Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Hooker barely escapes with his life, but his close friend is killed by Lonnegan’s men. Vowing revenge, Hooker heads to Chicago looking for Henry Gondorff (Newman), a once great con man now hiding from the FBI. He convinces the skeptical Gondorff to arrange an even bigger con on Lonnegan. This will require Hooker to pretend to be a turncoat named Kelly and who is willing to help Lonnegan get revenge on Gondorff for a prior gambling loss.
Like all great movies of this genre, you have to convincingly keep the viewer both interested and unsure as to how the con will actually succeed when unexpected complications arise. Whether it’s a crooked cop finding Hooker, the FBI secretly showing up to possibly throw a monkey wrench into the two con men’s plans, or the frustrated Lonnegan sending his best assassin, Salino (who is deliberately unseen to heighten the suspense), to hunt down and kill Hooker, “The Sting” is a prime example of how it can be entertainingly done. The only real negative I have for this film is the Scott Joplin adapted ragtime music score by the vastly overrated Marvin Hamlisch. Why is that? Well, Scott Joplin died around twenty years before the time period for this movie. Having Joplin’s music popularized here is as ridiculous as having 1940s big band music representing the type of music popular during the nineteen sixties. Despite that, the movie is great and won well-deserved Oscars for Best Director (George Roy Hill), best original screenplay (David S. Ward), Best Picture, and seven out of a total of ten nominations. Oh, and even though he didn’t win, legendary Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Surtees (“King Solomon’s Mines”, “Ben-Hur”, etc.) did standout work here too! In conclusion, motion pictures about gambling whether it involves cards (“Rounders” or “The Cincinnati Kid”), pool (“The Hustler”), horseracing (“The Reivers”) or something else will always be a popular subject. And if you want to disagree, all I have to say is…
“You want to bet me?”