Gambling often makes for fascinating movies. There’s the fixed roulette table from Casablanca (1942), the bankrupt-the-bad-guys poker game from Casino Royale (2006), the superhuman gambling prowess of God of Gamblers (1989) and the Mafia-funded rigged title bouts from pretty much every boxing movie ever made. In addition to supercool gambling protagonists played by the likes of Daniel Craig and Chow Yun Fat, we’re treated to an extra frisson of suspense as that last card, upon which everything depends, is dealt. People rarely speak about gambling movies as a genre despite the many remarkable films based on the pursuit. This week, we’ll take a look at three particularly fascinating gambling films that couldn’t be more different but which deal with the theme of gambling in extraordinary ways.
• Croupier (1998) — After the iconic British crime film Get Carter (1971) and the tacky camp extravaganza Flash Gordon (1980), people weren’t quite sure what to expect from director Mike Hodges. Nobody could have predicted the sublime, understated artistry of Croupier, which has quietly been building up a cult of admirers since its release.
Jack (Clive Owen) has a philosophy — that people are divided into gamblers and dealers (or, to use the film’s title, croupiers). Gamblers take risks and often lose, while dealers risk nothing and can neither win nor lose. Knowing he’s no gambler, Jack takes a job as a croupier at a mid-level casino and interacts with a fascinating assortment of casino-dwellers. He knows every method of cheating known to man and handles cards expertly, but would never think to use his skills as a gambler would — especially since casino owners are dangerous people, and cheating them is an entirely different form of gambling. Nevertheless, a beautiful but potentially untrustworthy female gambler begins to convince him that it might be time to start taking risks after all.
• Cockfighter (1974) — This fine adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel was one of the few movies to lose money for producer Roger Corman, due to its unsavoury subject matter. It certainly didn’t help matters to have real roosters die onscreen, but that is, after all, the nature of the “sport” depicted here.
Frank (Warren Oates) takes cockfighting very seriously; so much so that he has taken a vow of silence until he can win the “Cockfighter of the Year” award. Possessions, homes, relationships — everything becomes a commodity with which he can gamble. In the novel the film is based on, Frank’s narration explains that cockfighting is the one form of gambling in which it is impossible to cheat, despite the fact that he attempts to cheat right at the beginning of the story. It is an attempt that fails disastrously, leaving him homeless and broke, but still determined to win. Oates convincingly portrays a fascinatingly damaged human being while hardly ever speaking on camera.
• The Hustler (1961) — Wow. Just… wow. This pool hall masterpiece demands to be seen. Paul Newman plays “Fast” Eddie Felson, an up-and-coming pool shark determined to defeat the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). When played at this level of skill, straight pool isn’t a game of chance at all; the only thing that determines victory is which player is the first to subconsciously give up, providing him with an excuse to lose. Supreme gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) is an expert at spotting winners and losers. He takes Eddie under his wing, but his intentions are neither unselfish nor benign.
This is a brilliant film, adapted from an equally brilliant novel by Walter Tevis. Interestingly, the novel is burdened with a tacked-on, unconvincing happy ending that contradicts the main theme, while the film itself is not. Downbeat and flawless, the film version of the The Hustler is the exact opposite of the usual “Hollywood ending” novel-to-film adaptation we’ve come to expect.
With its incredible black-and-white cinemascope photography, this is one film that really, really needs to be seen in the widescreen format. Accept no substitutes.