Hollywood’s Love Affair with Gambling
From ancient westerns when hard-bitten cowboys clashed over the poker table in the smoky backroom of a bar, to the glitz and glamour of the Ocean’s 11 series with their Vegas backdrop, it creates scenes that are unforgettable.
It also gives film characters the opportunity to prove themselves in high pressure situations, not to mention injecting that all-important conflict that drives almost all drama. And the bigger the stakes, the bigger the drama.
In fact, it would be fair to say that gambling in general, and poker in particular, has been at the root of some of the most iconic scenes in cinema – ones which have given us an extra insight into the true nature of the characters involved. But the jury’s still out as to who is the greatest gambler in cinema history. Maybe our rundown of four amazing performances will help you decide.
Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke
The central character of the 1967 prison drama is Lucas “Luke” Jackson. Imprisoned for the relatively minor misdemeanour of stealing from parking meters, he finds himself in a tough Florida jail ruled over by another prisoner called Dragline.
It’s a question of impose himself or be crushed and one of the key scenes in which he establishes himself comes in an illegal prisoners’ poker game on the wing. As the action becomes more frenetic all around him with other players making wild bets and rash moves, Luke holds his nerve. From his cool reserve we’re led to think he must have an amazing hand and is just biding his time before he reveals it. As it emerges, it’s not a great hand but he wins all the same, every other player having blown their stake money in wild gambling.
As he says at the end of the game, “sometimes nothing can beat a real cool hand” – thus his nickname and reputation is secured.
Paul Newman in The Sting
Six years after making his mark in Cool Hand Luke, Newman was at the poker table again in the much-anticipated follow-up to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The complicated plot involves two Depression-era grifters planning to cheat a dangerous gangster, Doyle Lonegan played by Robert Shaw.
As part of the longer term swindle, first they need to reel him in and one of the ways the pair manage to do this is by arranging a poker game on a train between the mob boss and Henry Gondorff, played by Newman.
Throughout the scene, Newman pretends to be both drunk and obnoxious in a deliberate attempt to infuriate Lonergan. They are both obviously cheating but Gondorff emerges as the more effective of the two, taking his opponent down for a very handy $15,000. As a result Lonergan falls perfectly into the trap that’s been designed to ensnare him. As to what happens next, you’ll just have to check out the movie to discover.
Daniel Craig in Casino Royale
If there’s one character who you’d expect to carry off a winning flourish with a straight flush hand in poker it’s that arch denizen of the casino, James Bond. And anyone who went to see Daniel Craig’s first outing as 007 in 2006 won’t have been disappointed.
It’s an altogether more remarkable conclusion to the game as he had just had to re-start his own heart with an on-board defibrillator in his Aston Martin following a poisoning attempt by the evil Le Chiffre.
The action takes place in the eponymous Casino Royale in Montenegro and the stakes could not be higher. In a previous hand Bond had already lost a pretty impressive $10 million of government money and it’s only the intervention of old ally Felix Leiter who agrees to stake him to beat Le Chiffre. As the tension rises, other players drop out and there’s a total of $115 million on the table. Even though his adversary trumps the other players, it’s Bond’s straight flush that wins the day.
Matt Damon in Rounders
A few years before his appearance in Ocean’s 11, Damon got his first taste for poker.
Rounders is a classic buddy movie in which he plays a talented player and law student who is drawn into a plot to help out a friend who’s recently been released from prison. His friend, Worm played by Edward Norton, has racked up big gambling debts and Damon promises to use his card skills to help him clear them.
Ultimately, this results in a high-pressure game against a sinister opponent called KGB – John Malkovich at his threatening best – and one which he has to win. Fortunately, KGB has a very obvious “tell” so Damon finds it easy to see when he is bluffing. This means he goes on to win $60,000 which lets him repay all his and Worm’s debts. At the end of the film he even has enough cash left to head off to Las Vegas to compete in the famous World Series of Poker. Let’s hope his character was more successful than Damon managed to be in real life.
So there you have them. Four great gambling performances in four great films. As to who’s the champion gambler, our money’s on Paul Newman. Not just because he appears twice in the list but because in one performance he’s the epitome of cool and in the other he’s taking on a cheat and beating him at his own game. In short, the perfect poker exponent.