The 21 Best Gambling Movies of All Time (1-10)
Yesterday, I posted the first half of my list — “The 21 Best Gambling Movies of All Time.”
Continuing with our countdown, let’s now proceed to the top ten. A drum roll please….
10. Big Hand for a Little Lady (1966)
This is one of only three comedies to make the top 21 list. There’s not much to be taken seriously in this movie, which is about a high-stakes poker game held in the backroom of a saloon in the old west. What makes the movie are the fine performances all around by Joanne Woodward, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Kevin McCarthy and other supporting actors in addition to some surprise polt twists along the way. In case you’ve never seen the movie, Henry Fonda gets trapped in a big poker game with his family’s life savings. During the game, he suffers a heart attack — so his wife (played perfectly by Woodward) has to fill his seat at the poker table, even though she has no clue how to play. The dialogue is fun and witty making for what’s become an old-fashioned classic.
9. Rounders (1998)
Some of my poker-playing friends are likely to rank this film higher. It’s a pretty good movie, but not as strong as the far more creative (and sometimes edgy) collection of films ranked ahead of it. Matt Damon plays a New York City college student who discovers a natural talent and intense passion for poker playing. Trouble is, he’s weighed down by the baggage of a deadbeat friend appropriately named “Worm,” played by Ed Norton, Jr. Virtually every poker friend I know has seen this movie, so I won’t spend much time revealing much about the plot. New York’s underground card clubs during the 1990′s are portrayed with remarkable accuracy in this film (some of the characters were based on actual people who worked inside the clubs). My strictly personal biases against this film includes a failure to buy into baby-faced Matt Damon as a true poker professional (or New York City resident for that matter) and the wildly exaggerated bad-guy characters played by John Malkovich (as “Teddy KGB”) and the thug who threatens to beat up Damon throughout the movie. Stands up well over time as a good movie. But nowhere near the best.
8. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Guy Ritchie’s masterful film caper about a band of Brits who get cheated in a card game (brag). They owe half a million pounds to the East End mobster, and have only one week to come up with the money. They resort to a wild scheme of robbing and stealing in order to satisfy the debt and from there things really spin out of control. Cleverly written and paced, with the typical stylish flair one would expect from Ritchie’s direction. Story enhanced by excellent soundtrack of relevant songs. Widely successful in the U.K., but not nearly as well-known in the U.S. A must-see if you like tough guy movies with lots of memorable street dialogue.
7. The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984)
This is one of Mickey Rourke’s very best film roles, but his sidekick Eric Roberts steals the show. The quintessential buddy movie, Rourke and Roberts struggle to make ends meet in New York’s Little Italy. So, they resort to doing something really stupid — stealing from the mafia to make some quick cash. Along the way, Roberts receives inside information about a horse race. So, they head off to the Monmouth Park racetrack to bet on his “sure thing.” The Pope of Greenwich Village has some wonderful moments and is filled with outstanding performances. Two of the very best are by Geraldine Page in her last film role and the always-fabulous Burt Young, who plays “the Pope.” Rourke is also perfect in a memorable performance reminiscent of the charisma and toughness embodied James Dean. When I saw this right out of college, I wanted to be Mickey Rourke.
Here’s the trailer, which gives a nice overview:
6. Croupier (2000)
British film starring Clive Owen as a casino dealer. Shows the darker side of London’s gambling scene. Quite unusual in the sense it shows the casino subculture from the perspective of a dealer, rather than player. The contrived story isn’t as important as the stunningly accurate depiction of casinos and much of the attitude behind the scenes by those who work in the business. The most revealing scenes are those which capture the repetitive dullness of casino gambling over time, behind the allure of glitz and glamour. Indeed, all that glitters is not gold.
Here’s a mixed collection of scenes which gives some glimpse into what is a stylistic portrait of gambling and those involved in it:
5. The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
For those who mistakenly think Rounders is a better movie, here’s something to think about. Watch the two climactic final scenes and then admit which one is far superior. That’s why this film gets high marks, despite some admitted flaws — including the implausible final poker hand (mathematically speaking). Steve McQueen plays the “Cincinnati Kid.” Edward G. Robinson is cast as “Lancey Howard” — also known as “The Man” in poker circles. McQueen’s goal is to beat the man, but he wants to do it honestly on his own terms. The Cincinnati Kid is a boldly accurate portrayal what the high-stakes gambling subculture must have resembled during the 1930′s. It also shows poker as a respectable (and even noble) pursuit. The movie is helped by a hand-picked cast of brilliant supporting actors — Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld, Rip Torn, Jack Weston, Cab Callaway, and of course — Ann Margaret. Back to the amazing final scene. Why does this stand above all the others? Pacing. Texture. Timing. Musical accompaniment. Intensity. It begins so slowly, so innocently — just as real poker hands do. As each card is dealt, the room full of people — each linked to the outcome in different ways — becomes more intense. Those watching begin projecting their own hopes, desires, and suspicions upon the hand and the game. The hand plays out to gut-punching conclusion, filmed to absolute perfection. An amazing cast. A brilliant movie. A thrilling conclusion. This stands as the best poker movie of all time and perhaps the single best scene ever filmed.
Here’s that fabulous final scene:
4. Casino (1995)
Director Martin Scorcese is in familiar territory here with his usual ensemble cast of badasses, which includes Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci as the stars. Sharon Stone also delivers arguably her best performance. Based on the true story of “Lefty” Rosenthal and the Argent Corporation scandal which engulfed the now demolished Stardust Casino back during the late 1970′s, the plot essentially depicts the decline of organized crime in Las Vegas (and the subsequent rise of something far worse — big corporations).
Watch this brilliantly-filmed scene shot in the desert where Joe Pesci gives Robert De Niro a lecture filled with f-bombs:
3. The Sting (1973)
The Sting is a timeless classic. It won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture in 1973. It’s the story of a small group of grifters in Chicago during the Depression who pull off an elaborate hoax on an underworld boss played wonderfully by Robert Shaw. Paul Newman and Robert Shaw are the heroes. They manage to hire a crew and pull off the best con jobs in movie history which uses a now-familiar past-posting technique in relation to the reporting of horse racing results. Musical score by Scott Joplin (arranged by Marvin Hamlisch) is just as memorable. Everything works to perfection in this film directed by the late George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The World According to Garp). Arguably could be number one on the list.
Here’s the movie trailer:
2. The Gambler (1974)
Actor James Caan doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for a stellar film career filled with memorable roles and fascinating movie characters. This performance, among his very best, is often overlooked and largely forgotten by the critics and the public alike. Caan plays a NYU professor hopelessly hooked by the thrill of living on the edge. He engages in all forms of gambling, but gets into deepest trouble by sports betting. The film shows his gradual self destruction and psychological deterioration to the lowest depths of depravity. What makes this rarely-seen movie so special is just the right intensity Caan brings to a very demanding film role. I’m not sure any other actor could have portrayed the “Axel Freed” character quite in such a believable manner. Every frown, grimace, and fist-pump is performed with just the right volume. Yet, for all his character flaws, Caan also manages to make us care to the point where we cheer for him. This gem, now 40 years old, might seem a little dated to some with its 1970′s fashions and street lingo. But beneath the tight flashy shirts and wide collars, the script and film combine for an astonishingly powerful and accurate depiction of the pitfalls of compulsive gambling. It also includes a number of humorous moments, where Caan goes to ridicuous extremes to get the latest sports scores (this was long before ESPN, the Internet, and cell phones when scores were harder to come by). Everything in this movie rings true. It’s probably the most realistic movie about (the downside of) gambling ever made. I give it the nod above many other outstanding films because it’s so edgy and doesn’t resort to sentimentalizing the serious subject matter.
The Gambler deserves multiple film clips. The first is a collage of references to Dostoyevsky’s literary classic of the same name:
The second scene shows Caan so desperate for cash that he’s forced to borrow $15,000 from his mother. Watch Caan pulverize the prickly bank teller, played by James Woods in one of his earliest film roles:
The third scene is interesting, because it shows the psychological high of compulsive gambling. Most films on the subject only show the downside. To The Gambler’s credit, we are able to understand that gambling provides insatiable satisfaction, when winning. Watch the brilliantly filmed blackjack scene at Caesars Palace towards the end of this clip:
1. The Hustler (1961)
More than 50 years after it was released, The Hustler still stands an absolute masterpiece. Brilliantly written, perfectly filmed, and utterly believable from start to finish, the plot evokes meanings and messages right out of a Shakespeare tragedy. Paul Newman plays a brassy young pool shark who desires to be the very best at the game. To prove he’s the best, that means there’s only one man left to beat — the legendary Minnesota Fats. The movie opens with an overnight pool showdown between “Fast Eddie Felson” and “Minnesota Fats.” The outcome of the game sets up the remainder of the movie and another game of revenge. Normally, it would impossible to outshine Newman’s utterly convincing performance as the character we both love and loath. But George C. Scott, playing the role of Felson’s business manager and backer manages to do so, along with Jackie Gleason, perfectly cast as “Fats.” This film was daring for its time, for many reasons. First, it showed the immensely popular Newman in a less than heroic role. It also violated usual typecasting, by using one of the era’s most famous television comedians (Gleason) playing the part of the heavy. Then, George C. Scott was also relatively unknown at the time, and is critical to the plot. Moreover, The Hustler portrays gambling as it was in those days, a gritty vocation with immense personal risks and costs. Perhaps what really makes this movie rise above all the rest are its immortal words and ideas. The very best is delivered in the bar scene when Scott meets Newman officially for the first time and tells him it’s not talent that matters — one’s character is far more important. That might be the single most poignant message to remember for any gambler.
I’ve posted two video clips. First, here’s an interesting overview of the film from a show called “The Film Can”:
Here’s the film trailer for the digitally remastered film version of The Hustler:
So, what movies did I miss?
Here’s a look at several well-known (and some less well-known) films that missed the cut. These movies are listed alphabetically:
Movies That Didn’t Make the List (and Why):
The Big Town – 1987 drama staring Matt Dillon. The star moves from a small Midwestern town to Chicago to become a professional craps shooter, playing (and winning) in mob-run joints. Yeah, right.
Casino Royale (1967) – Touted as a comedy spy thriller with an all-star cast, this an unwatchable film. I’ve never made it all the way through without falling asleep or changing the channel. Mind-numbing dullness.
Casino Royale (2006) – Daniel Craig’s first film to be cast as James Bond. I have some personal baggage with this movie as I heard a lot of the inside information about how it was made and the atrocious business practices by the owners of the James Bond license. Admittedly, that gave me a sour impression of this movie and I could not enjoy it.
The Cooler – Story about a supposed “cooler” hired by a casino to bring bad luck to hot gamblers. Some critics liked this movie. I didn’t. It might have made for a fun caper had the idea of a “bad luck charm” been scripted with Jim Carey playing the lead. Imagine that possibility. Instead, the usually wonderful William H. Macy plays the house iceman, and the plot inexplicably takes a much darker twist. Moreover, I wasn’t buying for a minute that cocktail waitress Maria Bello would fall for the hopeless loser played by Macy. Filmed on location in Downtown Reno, which is supposed to substitute for the real Las Vegas. That should tell you everything about its authenticity.
Deal – Another film where I was on location and witnessed some of the filming, which took place in New Orleans. This movie is downright painful. Laughingly bad. Burt Reynolds stars and a bunch of professional poker players play themselves in this dreadful movie that the Las Vegas Review-Journal film critic described as follows: ”Deal makes Lucky You look like Citizen Kane.”
Diggstown – Somewhat unknown movie released 1992 about boxing and taking a fall for money. This film came close to making the Top 21 cut. Stars James Woods (who deserves a lifetime achievement award for appearing in more films on my list than any other actor, except Paul Newman) along with the Louis Gossett, Jr. Decent, but nothing memorable.
The Grand – Spoof about a big-time poker tournament. Tries to copy the cult following of the Christopher Guest “mockumentaires” (This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) which mocks real-life people and events, but fails to really connect or inspire much of a reaction. To be fair, there are a few hysterical scenes in this movie. But most of the film is a bore and a monumentally missed opportunity. Note that just before this film came out, I contacted Christopher Guest to try and get him to do a spoof on the WSOP. He responded by noting that this film was already in production. The end result is a huge disappointment.
Guys and Dolls – Fabulous musical, but mediocre movie — despite the stellar cast that includes Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, and Frank Sinatra. What kills the movie is the contrived movie set. Had this actually been shot on location out in the streets of New York, it would have had much more color, character, and energy. Imagine Sinatra really singing his part on a busy day out in the middle of Times Square. Instead, this 1958 film comes across as little more than a lame high school musical.
Havana – Robert Redford is cast as a professional poker player in Cuba right before Castro comes to power. For movie audiences hoping for more of the same energy that worked so well in The Godfather II (recall the famous “I know it was you, Fredo!” scene), there’s little of that intrigue here despite an eclectic array of characters who manage to prosper in Havana amid rampant corruption. Distracting story of a love triangle does little to maintain our interest. Pass.
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story – I’ve never commented publicly about this film, for obvious reasons. Director A.W. Vidmer was kind enough to list me in the film credits, so my comments are a clear conflict of interest. For such a small-budget film, Vidmer made a watchable movie. But Michael Imperioli is horribly miscast in the lead role. This movie never really captures the magnetism and mysticism of Ungar, in my (biased) opinion.
Honeymoon in Vegas — Nicholas Cage has some funny moments playing the usual exploding human pressure cooker for which he’s become typecast. Enjoyable movie which includes an amusing poker game scene with Cage, James Caan, and Jerry Tarkanian as one of the players.
Indecent Proposal — Robert Redford offers a couple $1 million if he can go out on a date with the guy’s girl, played by Demi Moore. When it was released, this film sparked millions of arguments from couples bickering about what they would do if offered the same proposition.
Kaleidoscope — 1966 British film that sounds interesting, staring Warren Beatty as a professional gambler. He breaks into the factory that makes all the playing cards at European casinos and manages to mark the decks. Interesting possibilities. But I have never seen this film, so I can’t include it on the list.
Lay the Favorite — How did flmmakers manage to blow this one? Filmed in entirely on location in Las Vegas and New Orleans a few years ago — starring Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones about a woman who becomes immersed in high-stakes sports betting. I saw parts of the filming in both cities and expected this to be a huge hit. The movie lasted about a week in theaters and was blasted by critics. It must have been awful, but I admittedly have never seen it
Lucky You — Released in 2007 about a professional poker player in Las Vegas played by Eric Bana. Also stars Drew Barrymore and Robert Duvall. Contrived, predictable, and embarrassingly awful at times. Reportedly cost $55 million to make and earned a paltry $8 million — making it one of the most disastrous films of that year.
Maverick — Innocent fun at times, but an absurd final scene where everyone is dealt a monster hand keeps this barely off the list.
Oceans 11 (1960) — Original Rat Pack flick that set a trilogy into motion some forty years later. Great ending and some interesting scenery of Las Vegas at the time, but the movie drags far too much to make the list.
Shade — Quickly forgotten bomb starring Sylvester Stallone released in 2003 about the set up of a crooked poker game. I have not seen this, but it apparently received generally positive reviews.
Two for the Money — Mind-bogglingly awful film starring Matthew McConaughey as a sports gambling tout, along with Al Pacino and Rene Russo. Supposedly based on the true story of scumbags who hustle “picks” on games. This movie is ludicrously bad and painful to watch. One of the worst gambling movies ever made.
21 – The filmmakers somehow managed to make the true story of the MIT Blackjack Team into a total bore. Poorly miscast lead character and a largely unsympathetic cast transforms this from a movie where we cheer for the card counters to succeed into hoping they get caught. And “Mr. M” is much nicer in person than the jerk portrayed by Kevin Spacey. Hugely disappointing.
Vegas Vacation – Some funny moments. But not nearly as good as two other films in the National Lampoon series (Vacation and European Vacation). Worth seeing for a few laughs, but not top 21 material.
LATE ADDENDUM: After writing and posting this list, I realized I forgot about the early Stanley Kubrick film called, The Killing, made in 1956. This movie is about a plan to rob a racetrack. Very dark film with some humorous moments. Also quite troubling, since the plan calls for a sniper to shoot one of the racehorses while running down the backstretch and in the ensuring chaos, the racetrack would be robbed by masked gunmen. This plot hits a little too close to home given some current news events. Still, if you can overlook this, The Killing is a very good movie and probably deserves a spot in the Top 21. Wonderful surprise ending not to be missed. I regret this oversight.