Saturday, April 17, 2021

On Gambling Movies

One thing I love about the Criterion Channel is how they gather films into special collections and series by theme, style, and genre. Right now I am really enjoying The Gamblers, a set of films about gambling and gamblers made from the 1940s to the 1990s. As is usual with these collections, some films are old favorites, some are ones I have wanted to explore, and some I've never heard of and am glad to have on my radar. 

This by the way is an argument for streaming services to do more curation. So many just shotgun blast content out there without offering viewers a chance for deeper engagement and new discoveries. But I digress...

I've always felt a little weird about gambling because I have personally seen how people can get addicted, and I tend to have a risk averse personality. I enjoy it, but only if the stakes are low. There is a real kind of thrill when one wins, it feels like you've managed to get one over on the universe. The losses, of course, just reinforce the cruel, capricious hand of fate's rule over our lives. And as in life, the game is rigged and you lose on more days than you win. Gambling is something that makes the reality of human existence a little too real. 

Of course, that makes it a great subject for movies. Here are some of my favorites:


I just rewatched this one, which I've seen a few times. I saw it first in an art theater back in my Chicago days and fell in love, then acquired a VHS tape when a local video store went out of business. It's the movie that put Clive Owen on the map, playing a struggling author who returns to being a casino dealer out of boredom and desperation. I don't want to give too much away, but the title character is someone who enjoys gambling without ever wanting to place a bet. He knows it's a loser's game, and sees gamblers' quest to get one over on the universe as a sign of delusion and selfishness. (It doesn't help that his dad was a gambler.) I love a good neo-noir and this is a great little hard gem of a film. 

The Hustler

I am a sucker for a certain kind of gritty 1960s movie shot in black and white with a jazzy score saturated in cigarette smoke. Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, and George C Scott is a helluva combo. 

California Split

Gambling seems to be a perfect subject for Robert Altman, whose films captured the small disappointments of life so well. What I love about this film is how well it captures the places where truly degenerate gamblers get their fix. It's not Rat Pack Vegas, it's smoke-filled poker rooms and racetracks with fifty layers of spilled beer and soda absorbed into their floors. There's a lesson here too, about how even when you come out ahead you never win because the true gambler can never be satisfied. This film also uses Altman's signature overlapping dialogue more effectively than any other since poker table talk lends itself to this method.

Lost in America

This one is cheating a little because the entire film isn't about gambling, but it's most famous scenes certainly are. This is the tale of an 80s yuppie couple played by Albert Brooks (also the filmmaker) and Julie Hagerty to decide to leave their corporate LA life and go cross country in an RV. Their first stop is Vegas, where they lose all of their travel money in one night due to the Hagerty character falling into a gambling frenzy. The scene where Brooks tries to convince the casino boss to give him his money back is hilarious as well as a great satire on affluent types who think the consequences don't apply to them. For the first time he can't get out of it because in a casino the house always wins. 

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