So here it is - RightCasino's list of the 10 greatest gambling movies ever made.
If you don't find your favourite film here, the chances are it's because the movie in question isn't really about gambling (see both Martin Scorsese's Casino and Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas). And of course, with only 10 places to play with, some cracking movies just came up short. Among those pictures deserving an hourable mention are Mississippi Grind, The Pick-Up Artist and Bob La Flambeur.
As for the top 10 proper, we begin with...
10) Hard Eight (1996)
Before striking gold in 1997 with Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson made Hard Eight (aka Sydney), a pared-back drama about a pro gambler past his prime.
Just how a first-time director managed to assemble this all-star cast – Samuel L Jackson, John C Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, the much missed Philip Seymour Hoffman – speaks volumes for the strength of Anderson's script.
Hard Eight is an indie gem that combines black humour with a knowing study of high-stakes casino gambling. And if it has an ace up its sleeve, it's veteran actor Philip Baker Hall as Sydney, the rounder who's seen everything but still can't resist the lure of the tables.
9) Owning Mahowny (2003)
This semi-fictional tale of bank manager turned criminal gambler is a glimmering star vehicle for Oscar-winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
The title character’s gradual descent into the dark recesses of addiction stands as a grave warning to us all that never feels preachy or condemnatory. Meanwhile, director Richard Kwietniowski (Love And Death On Long Island) employs sparse direction to downplay any sense of glamour in favour of a very human story of vice overcoming a man’s soul. No, you won’t leave this movie elated but it’ll stick with you forever.
8) Croupier (1998)
Between Croupier and Rounders, 1998 was a bloody good year for gambling movies.
Clive Owen is Jack Manfred, the titular croupier. In actual fact, he’s a would-be writer who’s forced to fall back on his chip-handling chops when his literary career fails to take off. From the other side of the table, Jack sees what gambling does not only to the punters but to the people dealing the cards. Such is its corrupting force that it’s not long before Jack’s playing a hand dominated by deceit, adultery and murder.
Less a public service announcement than a compelling examination of human motivations, Croupier is that safest of movie bets – a picture that pays off every time.
7) The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
Not until 2006's Casino Royale would poker be so engagingly portrayed on film as it is in The Cincinatti Kid. Director Norman Jewison perfectly captures the tense excitement of seeing the pot stack after the flop and of devising the best play while keeping an eye out for tells…
'King of Cool' Steve McQueen absolutely kills it as poker prodigy Eric ‘The Kid’ Stoner and is at his best during the film’s iconic ‘last hand scene’.
Jewison later dismissed the film as an ‘ugly duckling’ and went on to enjoy greater success with movies such as Fiddler On The Roof, Rollerball, The Thomas Crown Affair (also with McQueen) and The Hurricane. Nevertheless, this would represent many a director's career high.
6) California Split (1974)
Ask a card player what their favourite gambling movie is and they probably won’t say The Cincinnati Kid; rather they’ll say it's California Split, a film so steeped in the 1970s, you have to wear flares to watch it.
Directed by Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, The Player) and starring George Segal and Elliott Gould, the picture rings true with poker fans, it’s because it doesn’t over-glamourise the game. Nor, for the most part, does it feature people staking ridiculous sums of cash.
No, California Split’s a film about the grind of the pro gamblers’ life. Watch it and you’ll understand why those that ‘play’ poker are looked down on by the few for whom the deck is a tool of the trade.
5) Casino Royale (2006)
007’s stunning return to form is simultaneously the best entry in the entire James Bond franchise and one of the finest action movies ever made. However, central to Casino Royale is the utterly awesome high-stakes poker tournament,in which Daniel Craig's Bond fights to bankrupt terrorist banker Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen).
If you’d bet that it was possible to make 40 minutes of cinematic poker edge-of-your-seat thrilling, we'd have taken you at 100/1 odds and called you a chump. Fortunately, nobody did, so we don’t have to fork over my pension fund. Lucky escape.
4) The Music Of Chance (1993)
Adapted from Paul Auster’s novel , The Music Of Chance tells the story of Jim Nashe (Mandy Patinkin), a former fireman down to his last $20,000. That's when he runs into Jack Pozzi (James Spader), a gambler who has a plan to take apart two eccentric millionaires (Charles Durning and Joel Grey) over a few hands of poker.
Philip Haas’s film has things to say about gambling and good fortune that will be familiar to both casual gamblers and hard-bitten grinders alike. For example, at a key moment in the poker game, Nashe – convinced Pozzi has everything in hand – goes off to have a nap. By the time he wakes up, everything’s changed and Nashe and Pozzi are about to lose a lot more than their $20,000.
Did the one event lead to the other? Of course not, but Pozzi thinks it did and it's the intensity of his conviction reveals plenty about chance and how we interpret it. By the same measure, the film’s ending shows how one of the worst things that can happen in everyday life can be handy, depending on your point of view.
3) Rounders (1998)
Ever had the urge to watch a young, fresh-faced Matt Damon being terrorised by a mental Russian with an Oreo obsession and a thing for tracksuits? Well, good news! Red Rock West director John Dahl went and cranked out your new favourite movie way back in 1998.
Seriously though, Rounders is a thing of grim beauty. The narrative is as classic as they come: it’s the Rocky story, with a plucky upstart forced to bounce back after getting his backside handed to him. However, it’s the performances that make this flick, particularly Edward Norton as the hugely irritating Worm and John Malkovich’s brilliant turn as deranged gangster Teddy KGB.
2) The Hustler (1961)
Directed by Robert Rosen, The Hustler's jam-packed with gambling archetypes. There’s Paul Newman as 'Fast' Eddie Felsen, the wunderkind who’s his own worst enemy, there’s George C. Scott’s crooked agent, and there’s Piper Laurie as the love interest who discovers that there’s no room for distraction in a grinder’s life.
All the woes of the gambler’s life are also on show. Loneliness, heartbreak, boredom, borderline alcoholism – a less glamorous depiction of gaming it’s hard to imagine. And yet, so cool does Newman look while he dances around the pool table, it’s not hard to imagine that a lot of young men saw the film, left the cinema and headed straight down the nearest snooker hall.
The Hustler is, at heart, a story about the difference between the price and the value of something. Bare that in mind the next time you play a few frames. Oh, and remember - winner stays on and no masse shots.
1) The Gambler (1974)
Based on Dostoyevsky's novel, The Gambler stars James Caan as a literature professor who shares the screenwriter James Toback's obsessions with gambling. So great is wagering's grip the academic that he borrows money from his girl, his mother and the worst kind of loan sharks to feed his addiction.
"It's not easy to make people care about a guy who steals from his mother to pay gambling debts," said Cann. But care we do, thanks to Toback's semi-autobiographscal scipt and the actor making complete sense of our 'hero', his fractured logic's reveleaed in lines like “I’m not going to lose [the money], I’m going to gamble it”.
The leading man also clearly grasps Toback’s belief about gambling being mainly about the exercising of free will. To paraphrase Dostoyevsky, man is alone is being able to insist that two and two equals five despite all evidence to the contrary. No, it’s not wisdom but it says a lot about human nature, and that’s what elevates The Gambler to the top of the pile. Not that you’d want to let Cann's character know – he’d only go and blow the prize money on a basketball game.
Gambling movies on Netflix
It seems impossible these days to talk about movies without discussing their availability on Netflix. Unfortunately for film connoisseurs it’s easier to find the 2014 remake of The Gamblers (starring Mark Wahlberg) on the streamer service than the 1974 classic.
Casino Royale, arguably one of the best Bond films ever, is of course available for streaming as is the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owning Mahowny.
Croupier is available on the American, Canadian and Brazilian versions of Netflix, so British viewers will have to turn to the good old fashioned DVD to enjoy this gambling movie.
Talking of DVDs, while some of the older movies might not be available for live streaming, you can always opt for a Netflix DVD rental. Sure, it might only be one step up from wandering into Blockbusters but it’s better than nothing!
Originally published: 7/4/2014