Top 5: Gambling Movies

One of the cinema’s most beguiling and enthralling genres, the gambling movie is always a wild ride, sometimes taking the audience to the the thrilling heights of the winner’s circle and, more often than not, to the lonely lows of the loser’s personal hell. There is something vicariously sumptuous in gambling movies, it’s all about the minutiae, the resplendent details, the simple pleasure of ‘the game’ to be found in the turn of a card or the roll of the dice. It’s a strange kind of cinema, one of direct experience and implied meaning. Below Gentry look back at some of the best gambling movies ever made…

5. Rounders (1998)

Matt Damon is on usual maverick form here, playing, as is his want, a wayward genius of sorts. Way back when Edward Norton seemed charming, Rounders rode the wave of the new poker phenomenon that tightened its vice-like grip on the Western world.The gambling scenes are extremely satisfying, Dahl’s camera floating around, all seeing, all knowing. The tension comes through even for the lay watcher, there is a genuine significance to the hands played, even if the technicalities might be missed by the uninitiated. Norton is a fine, spiky counterpart to Damon’s sensible hero – it’s a successful double act: one a weak tough guy, the other a tough weakling. The viewer gets to see some neat tricks and cheats along the way in a script peppered with sage gambling soundbites: “If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.” Rounders is pretty light going in terms of psychological and emotional stakes but it plays out as a highly enjoyable study in choices, what moves to make and when to make them, awkward dilemmas the gambler is only too familiar with – gambling as a quick scribble before the fine art of judgment.

4. Bob le Flambeur (1956)

The film is a rare thing in the gambling movie genre, it draws the audience in to the magic, the absolute mystical awe of the hot streak. Whilst Bob’s associates are attempting to rob the casino, in way of an alibi, Bob gambles. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he finds he cannot lose. His streak runs and runs and runs, skewing the film into new, enthralling territory. This is the moment the gambler lives for, the point at which his reality will become surreal fiction. Eventually the police turn up and Bob is led away, but not before his winnings are placed carefully into the trunk of his car. He may be punished on a physical level but he has the unusual satisfaction of the winner to keep him warm through the long prison nights. and, of course, the future joy promised by the money that awaits him. In a refreshingly uncomplicated way, Bob le Flambeur is all about the cash, about finally being a winner. The gambler makes a living out of hope, every once in a while it’s good to see it come through.

3. 13 / Tzameti (2006)

For its intensity, for its ultimate nerve, for its impossible stakes, 13 (or Tzameti) is the most gripping and terrifying of any film to fall within the tantalising pull of the genre. Stark, violent and ruthless, the desperation of the world glimpsed at here is entirely plausible. It’s certainly not unimaginable that, in search of increasingly jagged thrills, the gambler becomes innured to anything but the cold mechanics of the bet, guiltily comforted by the rarefied air of depraved suffering. We follow the impoverished Sébastien as he takes advantage of a loose identity to edge his way into something he only half-imagined. Once there he lives at the far reaches of his emotions, exhausted and invigorated. Intriguingly, Sébastien’s position in the film is not as gambler but as a subject of the bet. The gambler’s themselves shuffle around the edges of the game space in a mastabatory fervor. Sébastien is like a card on the table waiting to be turned, fateless and non existent until the click of the trigger recedes or explodes.

2. The Gambler (1974)

More than any other movie in this list, Karel Reisz’s scorching portrayal of the gambler shows the inevitable, willful slide into oblivion that faces the man who cannot resist. An adaptation of sorts of Dostoevsky’s story of the same name, James Toback’s script focuses intently on the element of self-destruction which haunts Alex Freed (James Caan) as he (mis)places bet after bet after bet, believing each one will dig him out of the hole into which he is so enthusiastically burying himself. In every way Alex is pushing his luck, testing himself against cruel fate, stabbing the hearts of those he loves every time he begs for money. The enjoyably gritty supporting cast of Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton, Burt Young, James Woods and M. Emmet Walsh dash just enough New York scum into Caan’s pristinely accurate performance, in a lonely elite of ultimate destruction.

1. The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

Jewison’s film is the definitve poker movie, iconically poised and tangibly grubby, as close to a morality tale as the dirty underworld might dare tell. Melba (Ann Magret) rolls around on that soft and seductive bed, a siren of temptation, representing the soft juicy flesh of giving in. It’s Stoner’s discipline that holds out, his upright determination to take the game to its defining extremeties. As Howard says, “You’re good, kid, but as long as I’m around, you’re only second best”, showing that the skills that might see you succeed in one world aren’t worth a damn in this one. Ruthlessly minimal, harshly cut and sucking the air out of the room, it has the mark of its original director, Peckinpah, all over it.

A great scene from a great gambling movie:

Can you think of any better? Let us know…

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5 responses to “Top 5: Gambling Movies

  1. I was pretty keen on William H. Macy in The Cooler. Macy’s titular character is a shambolic loser so poisonously luckless that he is employed by casino owner Alec Baldwin simply to stand near players on a winning streak. With Macy’s bad luck vibes in the air, the high rollers quickly hit a new low. But when Macy falls in love with hapless waitress Maria Bello, his luck begins to change…

  2. I love the cooler, Alec Baldwin is superb, as usual. Also a big fan of the underrated Redford movie Havana…

  3. What about conmen? Best conmen films?

  4. House of Games, The Grifters, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Matchstick Men, 9 Queens…

  5. Con artist films? Two words: The Sting.

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