Gambling is a source of perennial fascination for Hollywood producers. No wonder: the casino mixes the dopamine rush of the game itself and the excitement of what happens when large quantities of cash and alcohol flow freely. With endless combinations of crime, sex, stories of winners who become losers and losers who become winners, gaming is endlessly attractive as a topic for the silver screen. Here is our top list, oldest to newest, of our favourite flicks and scenes with a gambling theme.
The Gambler (1974)
This was the first film of James Toback, currently in the headlines for his alleged ill-treatment of ladies in his life. The movie stars Axel Freed (James Caan) as a lit professor with a gambling problem. He wins big and then proceeds to lose it all, time after time. He gets in the hole, owing tens of thousands to the mob. In the end, he plays one last game and emerges victorious, freeing himself of his addiction and running ecstatic through the night. Trivia: Freed teaches Dostoyevsky in his college class, and the Russian author’s story The Gambler is believed to be the literary inspiration for the film. A remake (2014) featuring Mark Wahlberg was set in LA rather than NYC, and performed modestly well, grossing $34 million.
California Split (1974)
By Robert Altman and co-written by an up-and-coming screenwriter named Steven Spielberg, features the odd couple of Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Bill (George Segal), who bond after being wrongly accused of collusion at a poker game. The two are ever in search of the ever-elusive big payday, and finally Bill gets one, going on to beat poker world champion Amarillo Slim (playing himself) and winning a cool $82,000 in one sweet streak. But then, suddenly, he loses his taste for gambling, decides to split his winning with his partner and go home. Trivia: the film was originally MGMs to make but they demanded it be made at MGM-owned Circus Circus, with Steve McQueen and Dean Martin in the leading roles. That caused Spielberg and co-writer to bolt to Universal and film in Reno, Nevada.
The 1988 Oscar-winning film starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise is a comic road trip of two brothers separated from childhood. When sportscar dealer Charlie (played by Cruise) learns of his dad’s demise, he is shocked to find out that he has an elder sibling with autism permanently under care at an institution Raymond. The self-centered Charlie discovers that Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) has an amazing memory for cards and plans to profit from this unique gift at the blackjack tables in Vegas. The casino scenes are equally gripping and comic, rivaled only by Raymond’s bewilderment in the luxury hotel suite. understated film packs an emotional punch as the callous hot shot finds a soft spot for his long-lost bro. The movie pulled in an astonishing $354 million worldwide. For producer Barry Levinson, who picked up a script serially rejected by a half-dozen Hollywood moguls, that turned out to be a great bet.
is another buddy movie about underground high-stakes poker, featuring Ed Norton and Matt Damon as two pals who play poker from town to town in hopes of paying off a huge debt. The film chronicles the way in which Texas Hold‘em took hold in the US as a cultural phenomenon. Today, despite disappointing returns at the box office, the flick is a cult classic.
High Roller (2003)
Tells the tragic tale of Stu Ungar (Michael Imperioli), who went from teen genius in cards to a high stakes poker winner. Success comes at the price of health and happiness. The film is gripping and realistic, with life lessons for every gambling whale. But it’s not without its goofs: When Stuey enters what is supposed to be a circa 1973 Vegas casino, we see pokies which would only be invented some 20 years later.
In this 2008 film, MIT professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey) enlists a band of brilliant students to go Blackjack card-counting in Las Vegas, each weekend. Math whiz Ben Campbell is enticed by a sexy teammate (Kate Bosworth) and the draw of all expense paid Vegas getaways, living it up and pulling in the big bucks. The casino scenes are realistic, and the methods used to signal “hot” tables are interesting. Problems begin when the team opts to go it alone, without Mickey. They soon tangle with casino security boss Cole (played by Laurence Fishburne) and things quickly go to hell in a handbasket.