These ten films have tackled the complicated world of gambling in the best ways possible while also providing respectable spectacle and performances.

The cinematographic industry has approached most facets of the gambling world. Even niche occupations such as horseracing have their fair share of dedicated films.

We will look at how directors chose to treat the environment, activities, and culture created around gambling. The list includes award-winning works, Hollywood classics, action flicks, and contemporary masterpieces.

When Gambling Meets High Art: Casino & The Gambler(s)

We have met several film studies majors who would exclusively watch snails-pace moving Italian realist or Romanian new wave films that admitted to having Casino (dir. Scorsese, 1995) among their top five.

The Strip, as Meeting Point

Scorsese’s mafia slash gambling film builds a harrowing tale that moves between high- and low-class milieus via their meeting point – the casino.

We would do you disfavor by trying to resume the plot or describe what makes Casino a classic. We will tell you this: the dynamic between Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), and the former’s romantic interest, Ginger (Sharon Stone), is, as the first scene would imply, explosive.

Casino is the meeting point between art and artifice, spectacle and storytelling, and more than a mere gambling film. It is worth the watch.

The Gambler – Intertextuality & Interpretation

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short novel The Gambler, published in 1866, has received several film adaptations.

Ironically, Dostoyevsky was writing the novel under the pressure of a strict deadline due to needing to pay off gambling debts. No wonder his mind was stuck on one subject.

The First Adaptation

The first movie, The Gambler(dir. Karel Reisz, 1974), adapted by James Toback, follows the struggles of Axel Freed (James Caan), an English literature professor with a gambling problem. Caan earned laudations around the board for his performance and was even nominated for a Golden Globe.

1974’s The Gambler also originated under the influence of real-life pressure. Similar to Dostoyevsky, Toback took inspiration from his own life, as he worked as an English literature lecturer and developed a gambling problem. Halfway through writing, Toback decided to change the semi-autobiographical novel into a screenplay.

The starring role was initially proposed to De Niro. However, Karel Reisz intervened and cast Caan instead. It seems to have been the right decision. Toback later reflected that “Caan became a great Axel Freed”, albeit “obviously different” from what a De Niro would have embodied. Perhaps the performance was informed by Caan’s own battling with cocaine addiction.

That was the 1974 adaptation – a life-follows-art situation that loosely used Dostoyevsky’s novel but hinged on the experiences of its scriptwriter and starring actor.

The Direct Approach

1997’s The Gambler(dir. Károly Makk) functions as a direct recreation of Dostoyevsky’s novel.

The director’s name may not ring many bells in contemporary viewers’ minds. Nevertheless, Makk was a star of Hungarian cinema, having five films nominated for Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. He was also quite polyvalent, having expertise and interest in writing.

No wonder then that Makk was rather interested in the creation of the novel, following Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s (Sir Michael J. Gambon) feverishly dictating his novel that he has to finish in no more than 27 days.

What Reisz and Toback use for inspiration and reinterpret, heavily adapting it to their current environment, Makk portrays directly and with orthodoxy. The latter is rather interested in the tension between creator and creation, an angle that implicitly existed in the 1974 picturization but was not explicitly addressed.

Makk’s film is also notable for casting Luise Rainer, an Oscar-winning actress who at the time had not acted for 54 years.

The Last-Ditch Effort

Judging the past approaches to the text, what does 2014’s The Gambler(dir. Wyatt) add to the intertextual discourse?

Not much, most would say. Jim Bennet (Mark Wahlberg) is an odd and one-note character when compared to Axel Freed. One notable aspect of the reboot is that the movie takes more inspiration from Reisz and Toback’s 1974 film than the novel. However, the film does so by transforming Axel Freed into an edgy LA lit professor that cynically says things as they really are.

If Jim Bennet had a catchphrase, which he does have, it would be “Fuck you.” And by his “fuck you” attitude and a bit of preferential scriptwriting, Bennet pays off his debts and gets the girl (his only student with a future in literature) while being maybe too cool for a lit professor.

Wyatt’s flick does not do the original text(s) any favor, is what we are trying to say. The two previous films showed two approaches to interpretation. The 2014 reboot just uncritically references these works.

There is one aspect that Wyatt’s gambling film does well – hectic and chaotic action. However, there is one other film that just perfects the formula while also being an incredible creative feat.

The Uncut Reality of Uncut Gems

The Safdie brothers have a way of directing their hectic, slash, chaotic action that almost seems to harass.

Perversely Proximate

Their entry into the gambling film catalog, Uncut Gems(dir. Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie, 2019), portrays their technique perfectly.

The dynamic imposed upon the viewer by most of their notable works, among which we can count Good Time(dir. Safdie Brothers, 2017) and Heaven Knows What(dir. Safdie Brothers, 2014) to a lesser extent, is a way of pulling in. However, the close shots do not resemble a forceful gaze but rather one of perverse fascination.

Uncut Gems does the same. You, as the viewer, are constantly in Howard Ratner’s (Adam Sandler) business. The approach helps with the kind of short-sightedness that most of the Safdies’s characters exhibit.

Pleasure and Punishment

As a gambling film, Uncut Gems exploits the match-fixing, sure-win fantasy to its max. Ratner is a kind of whizz that skirts the edges, mind the pun, and goes against odds, only to make it at the last moment. And it would remain at fantasy fulfillment was it not for the unexpected turn of events.

The Safdies are master prestidigitators in this area. The proximity they create in the viewer is once more exploited and subverted by the failure of their characters. You are not just rooting for Ratner; you are perversely implicated in his immoral manipulation of sports events for the sake of betting.

And then you are hit, smack dab in the forehead with the ballistic power that cameras share with guns. No wonder that the motif of a sinuous and fascinating tunnel is thrice portrayed via Ratner’s colonoscopy, the gigantic gem ogled by Kevin Garnett (as himself), and, lastly, Ratner’s gunshot wound.

The twisty tunnel is the film, or film in general, for the Safdie brothers, while the viewer’s gaze is simultaneously surgically objective camera, viscerally fascinated gaze, and a lethal bullet. We recommend that the Casino worshipping film grads watch Uncut Gems once with the same intensity. The Safdies may have dethroned Scorsese.

Ocean’s Eleven, and Twelve, and Thirteen… and 8

Soderbergh’s trilogy, plus the spin-off, have left their mark in the gambling and heist film genres.

The series, which also got a spin-off, started with a reboot of the Rat Pack’s Ocean’s 11(dir. Milestone, 1960). The film became an instant classic and a perfect match. The Rat Pack itself played a considerable part in making Vegas the shining city in the desert it is today.

The Rat Pack Classic

In postbellum fashion, the plot had World War II veterans Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) and Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) rob five Las Vegas casinos, all at once, and all on New Year’s Eve.

And in the fashion of any gambling film, the plan goes well, except for one detail that goes wrong. The McGuffin in this case, with the risk of sounding insensitive, is Tony Bergdorf (Richard Conte), the team’s electrician, who has a heart attack and dies in the middle of the Strip.

What follows is a bit of detective action. Still, in the end, reformed mobster Duke Santos ( Cesar Romero) figures out who was behind the heists and confronts the group, demanding half of the stake.

In desperation, the team hides most of the funds in Bergdorf’s coffin, which is set to be sent to San Francisco. However, Duke intervenes once more and convinces the dead man’s widow to complete the funeral services in Vegas. She goes on to cremate the coffin, as well as the money. Classic Hollywood tragic storytelling.]

Enter Soderbergh

The remake Ocean’s Eleven(dir. Soderbergh, 2001) follows a similar trajectory premise-wise but also at the level of meta-filmic decisions. Essentially, it brings together a Rat Pack-like assembly of Hollywood stars that all “play” on the same team in an unlikely feat against the Man.

However, neither Danny Ocean (George Clooney) nor his brothers in arms are vets, but mere thieves and con artists. One more difference is that they make it, stealing $160 million. Where old Hollywood tragically punished the characters’ hubris, new Hollywood perversely allows the fantasy to go on.

Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

The second gambling film from Soderbergh’s trilogy loosely follows the turn of the 1960 original. However, instead of an ex-mobster demanding a share, it is the casino owner that blackmails the team into paying $198 million.

You would expect the other shoe to fall in this instance. But in total Hollywood optimism, again, Ocean’s team reunites for some exotic heists in Europe. It almost follows the Eat, Pray, Love logic of going to a foreign and romantic land to solve your homegrown issues – a light type of imperial thinking.

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

The 2017 final film of the main trilogy reverts the dynamics. Danny Ocean (still George Clooney) takes revenge upon a casino owner, Willy Bank (Al Pacino), for crossing one of his team.

Thus, the team plans to ruin the opening night of his new venue. And they make it, naturally. It is no surprise to say that Ocean’s Thirteen is no surprise.

Ocean’s 8 (dir. Gary Ross, 2018)

The old-new team could no longer unite with the death of starring actor Bernie Mac in 2008.

However, the producers opted instead to create an all-female spin-off, led by Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), Danny’s sister, and including Lou Miller (Cate Blanchett) and Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), among others.

The script was also notably written by Olivia Milch. However, on a less progressive note, the heist target changes from the manly casino to the heteronormative woman codified jewelry exhibition.

The movie is hip, naturally, including many elements of our current milieu. Rose () takes the money and goes to France with her Tinder date, while Constance () becomes a YouTuber.

It clearly is a weird direction for the series, having lost most of its ties to the classic. This is not negative by any means since the trilogy was already stale to a considerable extent.

Back to the Beginning

The first film covering casino life is mostly considered to be Gambling House(dir. Ted Tetzlaff, 1950).

The story is a melodrama telling the story of Marc Fury (Victor Mature), an unnaturalized immigrant who accepts to be framed for a craps motivated murder, only to try and double-cross the true assailant.

While the gambling film proves to be run-of-the-mill, its approach to gambling is important. What is the gambling house? Surely, for the immigrant who constantly risks deportation, it is America as a whole. And, as the movie suggests, if he plays his wager right, showing devotion to the American dream, Lady Luck, here represented by immigration social worker Lynn Warren (Terry Moore), will smile upon him.

Looking Back on Casino Films

Gambling is more a metaphor than a simple subject for most films. For the classic era, casinos were code for hubris, as is the case with Ocean’s 11, or the possibility of a better life, as for Gambling House.

Later, it became a catch-all term for addiction and abuse. We can see it clearly in The Gambler (1974). The 90s, represented by Casino and Makk’s The Gambler, saw in it the nostalgia of times past, when gamblers were either tied in with romanticized mobsters or existentialist heroes in their own right, following Dostoyevsky. The 2000s turned gambling into mere fantasy wish-fulfillment with no wit or critical lens.

And Looking Forward

Finally, the late 2010s reapproached the issue in more nuanced takes. Uncut Gems sees gambling as an allegory for venture capitalism, as such. And while it used the implied risk to attract the viewer’s gaze and harness its perverse libidinal strength, it also managed to punish our quote-on-quote hubris and unchecked fantasy.

Each instance of a gambling film will recodify the activity and environment to mean something else. We can already see late-capitalist anxieties foment into metaphors like Squid Game (dir. Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2021). Its structure, cultural footprint, and mere risk and pain-pleasure dynamic make gambling too strong of an element to elude the minds of filmmakers.

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