You don’t have to climb mountains to get a vicarious tingle out of “Everest” or “Touching the Void.” And you don’t have to register the slightest interest in gambling to enjoy “Ocean’s Eleven” or “Casino.”
Risk-taking is inherently cinematic. Taking a chance, after all, is what producing movies is all about. Some gambling films have hit it big, like “Guys and Dolls,” which became the top-grossing movie of 1956, and “The Sting” and “Rain Man,” both of which won the Oscar for best picture.
But when Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty teamed up for “The Only Game in Town” -- the only Las Vegas movie to be shot in Paris -- the audience stayed home. And when a nimble Joanne Woodward vehicle, “A Big Hand For the Little Lady,” appeared out of nowhere in the 1960s, it went right back to nowhere.
You almost have to have an instinct for what will click; some gambling movies touch on religion and states of grace. As Mahler’s ethereal First Symphony plays in the background, there’s a neon halo around James Caan’s head when he hits a lucky streak in “The Gambler.” There’s also a negative side to this talent: William Macy’s nerdy ability to chill such hot streaks provided the basis for 2003’s “The Cooler.”
In alphabetical order, here’s a roundup of 10 American movies that excel at capturing the addictive thrill of gambling fever:
“Bugsy” (Barry Levinson, 1991). Ben “Bugsy” Siegel is presented as the visionary gambler who created Las Vegas, and Warren Beatty plays him as the Tony Soprano of his day: charming when he wants to be, and homicidal when he’s doing “business.” According to a fellow gangster, he has one problem that ultimately proves ruinous to his health: “He doesn’t respect money.”
“California Split” (Robert Altman, 1974). Shortly before he created his masterpiece, “Nashville,” Altman directed George Segal and Elliott Gould in this loose, anarchic study of compulsive gamblers on a spree. The result alienated as many people as it entertained, but there’s an improvisatory honesty to it that sometimes makes it feel like the definitive gambling movie.
“The Gambler” (Karel Reisz, 1974). “It’s only insane if I lose,” explains James Caan, “and I’m not gonna lose.” Who can argue with logic like that? Not his girlfriend, who abandons him, and not his mother, who thinks he has “the morals of a snail.” Screenwriter James Toback, who wrote “Bugsy,” does a literate job of exploring the psychology of a self-destructive risk-taker who cherishes uncertainty. “If all bets were safe,” Caan’s character admits, “there just wouldn’t be any juice.”
“Gilda” (Charles Vidor, 1946). Rita Hayworth’s rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame” is deservedly remembered as her sexiest moment, but it’s the narrative context that gives it real oomph. George Macready plays her sadistic husband, who runs a Buenos Aires casino with the help of Hayworth’s old flame (Glenn Ford).
“The Grifters” (Stephen Frears, 1989). Jim Thompson’s twisted novel was transformed into a terrific vehicle for three actors who have never been better: John Cusack as a small-time con artist, Annette Bening as his opportunistic girlfriend and Anjelica Huston as Cusack’s equally tricky mother.
“The Hustler” (Robert Rossen, 1961). As an evil pool-shark manager, George C. Scott seems to be playing the Prince of Darkness himself. Equally memorable are Jackie Gleason as pool legend Minnesota Fats and Paul Newman as a younger player who discovers the hard way that “it’s not enough that you just have talent.”
“In America” (Jim Sheridan, 2003). In Sheridan’s autobiographical tale of an immigrant Irish family in New York, they visit a fairground booth where the father gambles everything he has, then bets the rent money on a hunch that he can win a doll. It’s a silly bet, but the family’s honor rides on it, and the tension is extreme.
“The Lady Eve” (Preston Sturges, 1941). “Let us be crooked but never common,” says Charles Coburn to his card-sharp daughter (Barbara Stanwyck) as they fleece a naïve millionaire (Henry Fonda) in the wittiest of all gambling comedies. As the title suggests, Sturges’ screwball script also has plenty to say about the battle of the sexes, especially when the humiliated Stanwyck seeks revenge.
“Let It Ride” (Joe Pytka, 1989). The spirit of Damon Runyon inhabits this little-known comedy starring Richard Dreyfuss as a gambler who has a spectacular day at the racetrack. The soundtrack makes artful use of a “Guys and Dolls” song that defines gambling and good times, and there’s a winning supporting cast led by the scene-stealing Jennifer Tilly.
“The Spanish Prisoner” (David Mamet, 1997). The title refers to what one character calls “the oldest con game on the books.” Campbell Scott plays its latest victim: a high-tech whiz kid who isn’t as smooth as he thinks he is. Steve Martin is perfect as the sinister sophisticate who befriends him. This is the most elegant of writer-director Mamet’s narrative mind games, which began with 1987’s “House of Games.”