Top 10 gambling movies of all time
This week's cover story, "All In," focuses on the work of University of Denver professor Robert Hannum, who's been researching the mathematics of gambling and the science of poker for almost two decades. Of course, we all know (or think we know) something about Las Vegas casinos and card games, much of it shaped by movies about Danny Ocean planning to knock over all the top joints on the Strip or the Corleone family making a move on Moe Greene and the Tropigala.
But what movies about casinos and gambling really get it right? Here's our top ten list of the most memorable, palm-sweating, risk-taking moments on the big screen.
10. Casino Royale (2006)
Along with successfully rebooting the sputtering 007 series, this boisterous film helped fuel the Texas Hold'em frenzy with its insanely high-stakes showdown between James Bond and Le Chiffre. The final, improbable, ball-breaking hand brings four players all in, with successively impressive cards. But it's not exactly a shocker when we learn who emerges top dog in this show -- even if he does undergo some testicular torture of his own once the game moves outside the casino.
9. The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
A classic poker fable with a big-name cast, led by icy-hot Steve McQueen and the incomparable Edward G. Robinson; Ann-Margret at her trampiest and Jack Weston at his sweatiest; and a bouncy title ballad, sung by Ray Charles. But the script (by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern!) is awash in clumsy melodrama and stock characters. The proceedings don't really come alive until the final hand of five-card stud, which has a lot in common with the Casino Royale showdown. (Note to self: Never rely on an aces-over-anything full boat against 007 or The Man.) It's a riveting sequence that makes you wonder what the movie would have been like if it hadn't been in a coma for most of the first ninety minutes.
8. The Sting (1973)
Cutesy, yes, but George Roy Hill's Redford-Newman extravaganza is also a clever and well-researched exposition of elaborate race-track and stock-market swindles in their heyday. Based in part on David Maurer's seminal work, The Big Con, an earnest study of the notorious scams run in the 1920s by con artists like Denver's own Lou Blonger and his Million Dollar Bunco Ring, The Sting is both a crowd-pleaser and an education in suckerdom, right down to the final blow-off involving a device known as a cacklebladder.
7. The Cooler (2003)
William H. Macy shines in one of his finest roles, as the house jinx brought out to chill any player on a big run. Maria Bello is the tough cocktail waitress who isn't quite what she seems. And Alec Baldwin, the vicious casino boss, damn near steals the movie. A sexy, violent fantasy of disillusionment and crushed hopes. Kind of like Las Vegas itself.
6. California Split (1974)
One of the lesser-known Robert Altman films, this tour of poker rooms, casinos, race tracks and other fields of doom has been denounced as muddled and rambling. But the chemistry between the itching-to-bet George Segal and the ever-yammering Elliot Gould is terrific, and the aimlessness of their journey is the point, to the extent the movie has one. When a man's obsessed with risk, winning doesn't satisfy, and even the hot streak of a lifetime doesn't guarantee a happy ending. 5. Croupier (1998)
Clive Owen, aspiring writer and dashing bastard, finds plenty of material when he takes a job at a London casino -- along with corruption, lust and the kind of sangfroid that comes from watching people throw money away all night. Don't fret too much about the weird plot turns of the last act and enjoy Owen's sleek performance and the intelligent script, bristling with snappy dialogue and great noir narration: "Now he had become the still center of that spinning wheel of misfortune."
4. Casino (1995)
Based on the real-life rise and fall of goodfellas Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, Casino is a signature Scorsese romp, with plenty of blood, Pesci and De Niro, kinetic camera work, outrageous 1970s wardrobes, and a proliferation of f-bombs. It's also a movie Hannum uses in class to teach students about Vegas history and gambling as a business -- something the characters end up neglecting while they're busy skimming the take, chasing messed-up broads like Sharon Stone, putting someone's head in a vise or beating each other to death with baseball bats.
3. Rounders (1998)
Never play cards with a guy named Doc, Nelson Algren once wrote -- or Teddy KGB. Unless you're Matt Damon, and you've been to the school of hard knocks and figured out that poker is about brains, discipline and, yes, humility, not bluster and luck. John Dahl's exploration of the game is gritty and thoughtful, yet oddly hopeful. In many ways, it's a more detailed and realistic treatment than you'll find in most gambling movies, despite the Hollywood touches.
2. The Gambler (1974)
James Caan's searing portrait of a gambling addict -- who also happens to be college professor, lecturing on Dostoyevsky when he isn't hitting on 18 at the blackjack table or wheedling cash from his own mother -- is unrelentingly grim. But it's also addictively watchable, following the professor's downward spiral to its logical conclusion. Much neglected after its initial release, this is an offbeat '70s gem that deserves a closer look.
1. The Hustler (1961)
Yes, it's about pool, not poker or casinos. And it's fifty freaking years old. But Robert Rossen's brilliant adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel set the bar for gambling movies of all stripes, one that's hard to beat. There's not a wrong move by Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, or George C. Scott -- or Jackie Gleason, for that matter -- in this stark meditation on tragedy and redemption, art and commerce, talent and character, and the psychology of winning and losing. Newman failed to score an Oscar for his fabulous work here -- ironically, that would come a quarter century later, for the limp sequel The Color of Money -- but as Fast Eddie discovers, winning isn't everything.
That's our list. But before the howls of outrage start rolling in, here's a few honorable mentions as well: Philip Seymour Hoffman's remarkable turn as a bank manager with a gambling habit in Owning Mahowny; the vastly entertaining and suspenseful casino scene at the climax of Bob le Flambeur (a much more interesting film than the 2002 remake, The Good Thief); the western comedy A Big Hand for the Little Lady; and The Grifters, a slick descent into a small-time hustler demimonde where the luck runs from bad to worse.
And here's a few films that shouldn't show up on any list of gambling movies because there's nothing -- absolutely nothing -- at stake in any of them: 21; Lucky You; Five Against the House; Five Card Stud; and any version or sequel of a thing called Ocean's Eleven.
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