Gambling was always a prominent feature in movies, almost always shown in scenes with suspicious characters in smokey rooms the hero needs to win over. This picture contributed to the overall perception of gambling in popular culture for many years. Only later movies, notably comedies and thrillers from the beginning of the 21st century begun portraying gamblers and gambling in a more favourable view. Either as funny and silly characters in comedies such as The Hangover, or as clever math and card counting geniuses (21). Below is a selection of movies featuring gamblers, or set in casinos, with stories revolving around gambling.
Casino is Martin Scorcese’s Academy Award nominated 1995 crime drama. Based on the book by Nicholas Pileggi and Larry Shandling, Casino follows the story of Robert De Niro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a Jewish top gambling handicapper who is called by the Mob to oversee the operations at the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas. It is based on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, who operated the Stardust, Fremont and the Hacienda casinos in Las Vegas for the Chicago Mob from the ’70s until the ’80s.
Joe Pesci stars as Nicky Santoro, (based on the real-life Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro), a crazy enforcer. Santoro is sent by the mob to Vegas to make sure that money from the Tangiers is properly skimmed and that the casinos in Vegas are kept in order. Sharon Stone plays Ace’s wife, the self-destructive, spoiled, sneaky Ginger. This was the role that won her a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress and an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Hard Eight is a 1996 film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. It stars Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson. Robert Ridgely, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Melora Walters.
The film, originally titled Sydney, was Anderson’s first feature. The story is about Sydney, a veteran gambler in his sixties who spends his time at the casinos. When he meets John, a sad bastard with no money, he tries to help him, teaching him all the tricks of the gambling trade. He also helps him to foster a relationship with Clementine, a young girl who works at the casino as a waitress. Clementine is also a prostitute, and eventually, something happens in the story that turns their lives upside down. A very well made film noir.
Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold
When fellow operatives Matthew Johnson and Melvin Johnson go missing during a top-secret undercover mission in Hong Kong, Cleopatra Jones goes there to find them. Assisted by a local detective, Cleopatra discovers that her friends’ disappearance has to do with The Dragon Lady, a crazed blond lesbian who runs a Macao casino and controls a major portion of the local drug trade.
Croupier is a 1998 film starring Clive Owen as a croupier. The film was directed by Mike Hodges. A croupier or dealer is a casino employee who takes and pays out bets or assists at a gaming table. In America, the dealer may imply a card game, but this is not always the case. In this film, Clive Owen plays Jack Manfred – an aspiring writer whose career is going nowhere. To pay the bills, and against his better judgment, he takes a job in a casino as a croupier. He finds himself drawn into the casino world and it eventually takes over his life; his relationship with his girlfriend begins to deteriorate, and he becomes involved in a heist scheme.
Inspired by the true story, “21″ is the fact-based film about six MIT students who were trained to become experts in card counting and subsequently took Las Vegas casinos for millions in winnings. The movie was directed by Robert Luketic and starred Kevin Spacey as the shady teacher who gave the students the know-how to scam the casinos.
Maverick is a 1994 comedy Western film, based on the 1950’s television series, also called Maverick, created by Roy Huggins. The film was directed by Richard Donner (The Goonies) from a screenplay by William Goldman.
The story, set in the American Old West, is the story of gambler Bret Maverick (Mel Gibson), and his comic misadventures as he makes his way to a major five-card draw poker tournament. Aside from wanting to win the poker championship for the prize money, his ego dictates that he wants to prove, once and for all, that he is the best. Again, hilarity ensues.
Factual error: In one of the film’s poker games, when Maverick meets Annabelle, there are seven people playing 5 Card Draw. You can’t play 5 Card Draw with seven people because, after the first deal, there wouldn’t be enough cards left in the deck for a full draw.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is the popular 1998 British crime film written and directed by Guy Ritchie. Essentially a heist film involving a cocky young card shark who loses half a million pounds to a bad-ass crime lord in a rigged game of three card brag (Three card brag is a British card game which is a lot like poker but varies in betting style and hand rankings.) In order to pay off his debts, he and his friends decide to rob a small-time drug gang who happen to be operating out of the apartment next door. Violence and hilarity ensue.
The Cincinnati Kid
The Cincinnati Kid is a film that was made in 1965 by director Norman Jewison. It’s the story of Eric “The Kid” Stoner, played by Steve McQueen, a Depression-era poker player, as he sets out to cement his reputation as the best player around. This leads him to challenge Lancey “The Man” Howard, played by Edward G. Robinson, a wiser and older player who’s considered the best. The film’s exciting climax is a thrilling final poker hand between the players. Stoner’s girlfriend is played by actress Tuesday Weld.
Based on the novel by Richard Jessup, the film has come to be seen as one of the greatest poker films ever made. The Cincinnati Kid was filmed on location in New Orleans, Louisiana, which was a change from the original St. Louis, Missouri setting of the novel.
California Split is a 1974 film directed by the late and legendary Robert Altman. Starring Elliott Gould as Charlie Waters and George Segal as Bill Denny, a pair of gamblers. Charlie is the joker of the two and the more experienced gambler. At first, Bill Denny isn’t as committed a gambler, he has a regular job, but he’s well on his way to adopting Bill’s lifestyle. As the movie progresses and the two men spend more time together, Bill starts to become addicted to gambling. He goes into debt with his bookie, Sparkie (Joseph Walsh).
As the film progresses, Bill and Charlie end up in Reno, where Bill pawns some of his possessions to get the money to stake Bill into a major poker game (one of the players is onetime world champion “Amarillo Slim”, playing himself). Bill wins almost 20 grand, but he won’t quit; convinced he is on winning streak. He plays blackjack, roulette and finally craps, constantly winning until something happens and he loses his mojo. Afterwards, he tells Charlie that his gambling days are over and that they should go their separate ways. The split the winnings and move on.
Let It Ride
Let It Ride is a 1989 comedy film directed by Joe Pytka. Richard Dreyfuss stars as Jay Trotter, a rather unlucky habitual gambler who experiences a day in which he wins every single bet he places. The film is based on the novel Good Vibes by Jay Cronley. Let It Ride was mostly filmed at Hialeah Park Race Track, which actually closed in 2001. Racing was being conducted at the nearby Calder Race Course, and Dreyfuss was seen several times there, presumably researching for his role.
A Big Hand for the Little Lady
A Big Hand for the Little Lady is a 1966 western film produced and directed by Fielder Cook from a screenplay by Sidney Carrol. The film stars Henry Fonda, Joanne Woodward, Paul Ford and Jason Robards, with Charles Bickford, Burgess Meredith, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Middleton, and John Qualen. The original TV play starred Walter Matthau as Meredith.
A couple (Henry Fonda and Joanne Woodward) and their young son arrive in Laredo, just as the five richest men of the area, are about to play the biggest game of poker of the year. When Woodward’s character Mary goes out, Fonda’s character Meredith, joins in the game after watching a few hands, only to lose most of the family’s savings. As Mary returns, he finds that he has dealt himself a winning hand, but does not have the cash to continue. In the following argument, he collapses, and Mary has no choice but to continue with his hand, in order to win back their money, the only problem is that she’s never played poker.