Cult gambling movies: RightCasino film club
We had a lot of fun a short while ago celebrating the finest gambling movies. So here are five pictures that haven’t received the attention of, say, Casino or the Danny Ocean films but which, in their own idiosyncratic ways, are every bit as deserving of your attention.
The Cooler (2003, above)
If Vegas folklore is to be believed, casinos used to employ ‘coolers’ – people who had the rare gift of being able to spread bad luck around. So, you have a punter on a red hot winning streak? Send over the cooler and, before you know it, the table’s as chilly as Northern Canada. Someone can’t stop rolling hard eights? Our man will have the croupier bellowing ‘craps’ before the dice have even had time to settle.
In Wayne Kramer’s movie, William H Macy – a man with a rare gift for playing losers – stars as Bernie, a lonely guy with said peculiar gift. But then he falls in love with a waitress – the stunning Maria Bello – and his strange knack evaporates. If romantic joy triggers interesting new things for Bernie, it represents bad news for his old skool boss Shelly Kaplow – Alec Baldwin on brutal, knee-shattering form – who has enough on his plate thanks to the new generation of casino owners.
A cracking drama – at times extremely violent but, more often, incredibly tender – The Cooler is a wonderful celebration of the underdog. And while we’re desperate for things to work out for Bernie and his new love, Kramer retains enough cynicism to ensure that we never take their future happiness for granted.
California Split (1974) – Ask a card player what their favourite gambling movie is and it’s possible they won’t say The Cincinnati Kid or Rounders; rather they’ll say it’s California Split, a film so steeped in the 1970s, you have to wear flares to watch it.
Ah, yes, the ‘70s – unless you’re very old, you mightn’t have heard of two guys called George Segal and Elliott Gould who, despite looking like funny uncles, passed for sex symbols in the decade that style forgot. Whatever their aesthetic shortcomings, they chalked up impressive bodies of work, with California Split representing a definite career high. Directed by one of the hottest filmmakers of the era Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville), it’s the story of Seagal’s down-on-his-luck gambler – in the movies, it seems there’s no other kind – and the misadventures that occur when he hooks up with Gould’s ne’er-do-well.
If 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.
The Pick-Up Artist (1987) – He’s lived a helluva life, James Toback. Besides directing the acclaimed drama Fingers, he wrote Bugsy for Warren Beatty, and he acted in the Woody Allen comedy Alice. The Harvard graduate has also dated many of the world’s most beautiful women, and made – and lost – a fortune gambling.
Both these elements feature prominently in The Pick-Up Artist, the film that marked Toback’s first collaboration with Robert Downey Jr. All but playing the director’s younger self, the future Tony Stark has rarely been as irrepressible and charming as he is here. That, after a string of extraordinarily attractive women, he winds up with Pretty In Pink’s Molly Ringwald doesn’t ring true. But fear not – watching Downey chat women up in the street and spar with movie bad guy par excellence Dennis Hopper more than makes up for his character’s lack of romantic common sense.
Speaking of Dennis The Menace, he’s but one of the many joys served up by a supporting cast that also includes Harvey ‘Mr White’ Keitel, Lorraine Bracco – late of Goodfellas and The Sopranos – and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) in a rare onscreen outing. As for Downey and Toback, they’ve made two other movies together – Two Girls And A Guy and Black & White – both of which deserve your immediate attention.
Diggstown (1992) – Originally released in the UK as Midnight Sting, Diggstown's directed by Michael Ritchie, whose filmography also includes the excellent little league baseball picture The Bad News Bears, the Robert Redford political drama The Candidate, plus Fletch, the greatest Chevy Chase movie this side of Caddyshack.
If Diggstown isn’t Ritchie’s best movie, it certainly isn’t his worst – that title belongs to another Chevy vehicle, Cops And Robbersons – and it’s never less than watchable, thanks in large part to a typically over-caffeinated performance from James Woods, here cast as a grifter who bets Bruce Dern’s no-good Southern businessman that his boxer of choice can defeat 10 of Diggstown’s finest within 24 hours. It’s a fun set-up made more entertaining still by Woods’ prize-fighter being a washed-up 48-year-old played by Louis Gossett Jr (An Officer And A Gentleman).
Featuring turns from a young Heather Graham and future Christ Jim Caviezel, the movie’s further enlivened by the presence of Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb, who boxed the likes of Ken Norton and Larry Holmes before take up acting, while eagle-eyed viewers might spy martial arts legend Benny 'The Jet' Urquidez playing a referee.
Still not won over? The next seven words should do it – Diggstown stars The West Wing’s Oliver Platt. Yep, knew that would do the trick.
The Good Thief (2002) – The Good Thief is a remake of a classic French movie, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur. Most remakes are, of course, appalling. So what elevates The Good Thief? Well, principally, it’s the fact it’s directed by Neil Jordan, the Irish filmmaker responsible for such superb pictures as Michael Collins, Mona Lisa, The Company Of Wolves and The Crying Game.
The picture – set in Nice and Monaco – also features a remarkably raw performance from Nick Nolte as a down-on-his-luck (!) card sharp who’s turned to art theft. Or so it initially seems. To say more would be to ruin a film the pleasures of which include a nice turn from Tcheky Karyo (BBC1’s The Missing) as a hapless cop and an unbilled cameo from Ralph Fiennes playing someone not that far removed from Harry, the absolute headcase he essayed in In Bruges.
With the cast including actors from most every continent, Jordan’s film is all the better for featuring few stars – unknown performers being far more expendable than A-listers when it comes to storytelling. The soundtrack's also pretty good – Leonard Cohen, The Chemical Brothers, Serge Gainsbourg – although we recommend switching off the moment Bono starts to murder the Sinatra standard ‘That’s Life’.