Stephen Frears‘ “Lay the Favorite,” the story of a characterful young woman (Rebecca Hall) who becomes involved in sports gambling, and which co-stars Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joshua Jackson, Vince Vaughn and Frank Grillo, slinks into theaters this week. In a way, it’s lucky to do so. Not taken too kindly by critics when it premiered at Sundance way back in January, it’s already hit theaters in much of the world elsewhere and is likely only making it to theaters out of contractual obligation.
But in fact, it’s not as bad as you’ve heard (at least according to this writer). Hall and Willis are entertaining enough, and it has a few pleasures to it, even if it’s far from the return to the spirit of “The Grifters” we were hoping for. But the film’s arrival in multiplexes has mostly had the effect of reminding us of some other great gambling movies of the past, and so to celebrate/distract from the film’s release, we’ve picked out five of our favorites. Most, but not all, revolve around card games of various kinds, and we tried to narrow the list down to films that are actually about gambling, rather than ones that simply feature it as a backdrop (“Croupier,” “The Sting” and “Casino” are among those that spring to mind). But of course, we couldn’t feature everything, so make the case for your favorites in the comments section below. “Lay the Favorite” hits theaters on Friday, December 7th.
“The Hustler” (1961)
Perhaps not as immediately associated with gambling as poker or other casino-based pursuits, pool is still probably the world’s favorite method of losing small sums of money to your mates, and as such, it’s appropriate that one of the first, and still the best, gambling-based movies revolves around the sport in “The Hustler.” An adaptation of Walter Tevis‘ novel by director Robert Rossen (who co-wrote the script with Sidney Carroll), the film stars Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, the Californian hustler of the title, who in the film’s opening scenes challenges the legendary Minnesota Fats (“The Honeymooners” star Jackie Gleason in a relatively rare straight role, winning an Oscar nomination for his trouble) with the aim of winning $10,000 from him. But he’s humiliated by Fats, sent away with his tail between his legs, and only $200 of his stake left. But inspired by local alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie), he comes back for another go, getting in too deep with pro gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) in the process. Not just a great gambling movie, but also a great sports film about the true battle of wills not just between Felson and Fats on the baize, but also the one for Fast Eddie’s soul, fought between the tragic Sarah, and the increasingly sinister Bert. Rossen shoots the pool excitingly (no mean feat), but the real meat is in the morality tale off the table. The cast, too are uniformly great (Newman, Gleason, Laurie and Scott were all nominated for Oscars, though Scott refused the nod), particularly Newman in a tortured, charismatic part that would become one of his most iconic. It’s no surprise that he’d return to it later for Martin Scorsese‘s solid but inferior “The Color of Money.”
“The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)
A star-laden period piece, “The Cincinnati Kid” suffered through a difficult production (Spencer Tracy dropped out before shooting, and original director Sam Peckinpah was fired mid-shoot, replaced by Norman Jewison) to become a huge box-office hit. And close to fifty years on, it still stands up as a solid little poker movie, setting up the template for many imitators to come. Based on Richard Jessup‘s 1930s-set novel, it sees Steve McQueen play the title character (Eric Stoner to his mom), who sets out to take on poker legend Lancey “The Man” Howard (Edward G. Robinson), who destroyed him in an earlier game. There are distractions along the way, from women (Tuesday Weld and Ann-Margret), his best friend “The Shooter” (Karl Malden) and no-good businessman Slade (Rip Torn), who wants to fix the game to get revenge on Howard. But really, it’s all about that final showdown, which takes up a huge chunk of the running time, and while it sometimes descends into what we’d describe as “Casino Royale” syndrome (Four of a kind! Straight flush! Royal flush! The odds of the final crucial hand are, for the record, 332 billion to 1), it’s tense and absorbing stuff, even for novices of the game. McQueen’s on solid form, though he’s overshadowed considerably by a stacked supporting cast (also featuring Cab Calloway and Jack Weston), with Robinson in particular the stand-out. Yeah, it’s basically “The Hustler” with poker, but with that cast, a snappy script from Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern, and Jewison on top form, it’s an entertaining couple of hours.
“California Split” (1974)
Coming in the midst of that extraordinary run between his two big hits (1970’s “M*A*S*H” and 1975’s “Nashville“) Robert Altman‘s “California Split” was, for a long time, never destined to be for the director. Screenwriter/actor Joseph Walsh had been developing it for several years with a young director who’d just made a splash with a TV movie named “Duel” — Steven Spielberg. The pair had set the project up at MGM, with Steve McQueen starring, but left for Universal after the earlier studio interfered and Spielberg departed the film to make “Sugarland Express,” with McQueen falling off around the same time. Finally, it came to Altman at Columbia, and the result was “California Split,” the kind of experimental studio movie that would never get made these days, and one of the finest and most authentic gambling movies ever produced. George Segal and Altman regular Elliot Gould play Bill and Charlie, two compulsive gamblers in California (as you might have guessed from the title) who become friends after being robbed by someone they’ve beaten in a poker game. As is often Altman’s wont in this time period, the film is virtually plotless; Bill gets more and more hooked, gets in debt, is on an amazing winning streak, and then suddenly falls out of love with it. It’s a study of character and plot, and thanks to Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue (the film was the first non-Cinerama picture to use eight-track recording techniques, meaning that the director’s soundscape could be even more cacophonous than ever), it’s just about the most unglamorous and authentic take on the subculture that you could ask for (Walsh, who also features in a supporting role, wrote the script as a deliberate reaction against more manufactured gambling movies). As you might imagine, it’s really Segal and Gould’s show, and both are terrific, giving among their finest performances. It’s not an easy watch and needs your total attention to the extent that it’s almost only worth watching on the big screen. But you’ll certainly find it worthwhile.
“The Gambler” (1974)
Loosely based on the short novel “The Gambler” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (we could have included it in this Russian Novels film adaptation feature too), Karel Reisz’s picture is an underseen gem from the 1970s that’s getting its second wind thanks to Martin Scorsese almost remaking the film (Todd Phillips is now at the helm). Starring James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton and written by James Toback (“Fingers,” “Tyson“), there’s obviously a lot of talent involved in this one and it’s no wonder it’s getting a worthy reappraisal of late. Caan plays Axel Freed, a New York City English teacher with a gambling addiction that gets out of hand (of course, he’s teaching Dostoyevsky at the time to explore moral and philosophical questions with his students). Admired by his students and peers, Axel has a beautiful girlfriend Billie (Hutton) and a well-respected family with a doctor for a mother (Jacqueline Brookes), and a wealthy businessman for a grandfather (Morris Carnovsky). But his gambling hubris gets the best of him and soon his bookie (Sorvino) is ready to break his legs for all the money he owes. Desperate, the teacher is on his hands and knees begging his mother and grandfather for money and when financial relief comes, instead of paying his debts, he foolishly tries to get ahead and fails miserably. Sinking deeper into his sickness, Axel reaches new lows when he tries to convince one of his African American students, a basketball star with a scholarship, to throw a game so he can profit. Featuring appearances by Burt Young, James Woods, and M. Emmett Walsh, watching Caan — who was battling his own cocaine addiction at the time — sink in his ugly moral morass is stomach-turning and as such, “The Gambler” is a taut and intense little ‘70s drama definitely tracking down.
Something of a critical and commercial disappointment on release, “Rounders” has benefited from the resurgence of poker, via TV broadcasts and Internet games, in the 14 years since it hit theaters, and deservedly so. It’s a modest little movie, but a gripping, brilliantly acted and hugely enjoyable one. A post-“Good Will Hunting” Matt Damon stars in a not-dissimilar role as a law student/poker savant, retired from the game after losing $30,000 to the fearsome Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, displaying one of the more ludicrous accents in cinema history), but tempted back, to the disapproval of his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) and mentors (Martin Landau and John Turturro), when his best pal Worm (Edward Norton) comes out of prison and needs a hand in clearing his debts. Gathering some of the hottest young talent at the time (Norton had recently broken out in “Primal Fear,” Mol was tipped for stardom), featuring a smart (if sometimes contrived) screenplay by Brian Koppelman and David Levien), and set in a sleazy, Damon Runyon-ish world of underground poker, it’s not going to change your world or anything, but it’s easily as enjoyable as some of the films above. And on a rewatch, the noirish, assured direction by John Dahl (“Red Rock West,” “The Last Seduction“) has us hope he gets another feature off the ground soon. In particular, the poker scenes are maybe the best ever filmed, credible (it’s regularly referenced by professionals in the field), tense and easy to follow. Along with a thrilling performance from Norton (who walks away with the film even against Malkovich’s attempt to start chewing his way through the poker table), that’s reason enough to stick the DVD in again, and keep your fingers crossed for that rumored sequel.
– Oliver Lyttelton, RP