There’s always been something about gambling that has been of huge appeal to filmmakers. Ever since the first Westerns, with the poker action played out in smoky bars, it’s been at the heart of some of the tensest moments ever in cinema. The reason for this is simple: whenever characters are playing for money, viewers are invested in seeing whether they’re going to win or lose. What’s more, the stakes involved can often be high and even sometimes a matter of life or death.
In some films it’s all about the gambling while, in others, it only plays a minor, but significant, part. But however central it is to the action, it’s certain to make a big impact – as these five examples show only too well.
No rundown of gambling scenes would be complete without at least one Bond movie, and what better than one whose title says it all. The first outing for Daniel Craig, the film also marked a distinct change of tone and feel for the long-running franchise and this is very evident in the pivotal poker scene.
Bond has been sent to Montenegro with millions of pounds worth of taxpayers’ money to take on the villain Le Chiffre in a high-stake game of Texas Hold’em. As the action unfolds, Bond has to deal with a crippling series of losses that soon see him almost out of the game. Worse still, Le Chiffre poisons his trademark Martini causing him to go into cardiac arrest.
Luckily for Bond, his government-issue Aston Martin has been handily equipped with an on-board defibrillator which saves his life. In fact, he’s so enlivened by the whole experience that he goes on to win the game with a straight flush, netting himself a very handy $115 million in the process.
Run Lola Run
The winner of the Audience Award at the 1998 Sundance Festival may be something of a cult classic but it’s a film that’s well worth searching out. Its innovative structure uses the same split storyline technique that it shared with another film that came out that year, Sliding Doors. The basic premise is that the boyfriend of the film’s eponymous heroine has lost 100,000 Deutschmarks that he urgently needs to pay to a crime boss – and Lola is the only person who could help him. The film presents three different scenarios, each very different from the other.
In the final one she heads for a casino and cashes in 100 marks for a chip that she places on the number 20 on a roulette table. It comes up, winning her 3,500 marks. Leaving her winnings on the same number, she screams so loudly as the wheel spins, willing and urging the number 20 to come up again. It does, winning her a lifesaving 122,000 marks.
With astonishing luck like this on display, any viewer would surely feel inspired to try their hand on an online game of roulette, or maybe a high-paying slots game like Rainbow Riches which, if your luck’s in, can pay up to 500 the original stake.
Matt Damon is rumoured to be quite a big fan of gambling, and poker in particular, so it’s fitting that one of his big breakout roles was in the movie Rounders. In the film he plays a maths student called Mike McDermott who dreams of becoming a professional poker player.
At the start of the movie we see him losing $30,000 to a shady and threatening character called Teddy KGB, played with real menace by John Malkovich. While this seems to have destroyed his career as a poker pro, he vows to seek vengeance.
After many twists and turns of the plot involving trying to help an ex-con friend (played by Ed Norton) clear his debts through poker winnings, the climax of the movie is a final showdown between McDermott and Teddy KGB.
The scene is so tense that you can cut the atmosphere with a knife, especially as Teddy has henchmen hiding in the shadows waiting to step in if the game goes against him. But McDermott manages to lure the Malkovich character into making a series of mistakes and his game falls to pieces. McDermott wins, and books his ticket to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
Following on from the huge box office success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the next vehicle for the dream pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford was this 1973 crime caper.
The title refers to the con trick that the pair aimed to pull off on the gangster Doyle Lonnegan played by the gravel-voiced Robert Shaw. The ultimate aim is to get him to bet on horse races whose results are already known. But to reel him in to the scam, first they need to needle him.
This is achieved in another game of poker, this time on a train. During the game, Newman pretends to be an obnoxious drunk, once again watched over by suspicious henchmen. Lonnegan is obviously cheating, and so is Newman’s character. But the fact that he seems to be so drunk throws his opponents off the scent. Naturally, he goes on to win, setting up the rest of the movie which unfolds like clockwork.
For the final selection here’s a real oddity. Not only does it feature bingo, it’s also perhaps the tensest scene of all. In the low-budget 2009 movie, a small town in Oregon is terrorised by a dysfunctional teen Bill Williamson. In the rampage of the title he goes on a shooting spree in the middle of which he visits a local bingo hall. Heavily armed and with a grudge against humanity, viewers imagine the carnage that will ensue. Instead, he asks for a drink and a sandwich and quietly watches the game while he consumes them. When he goes on his way the relief is palpable.
So as more and more people get into gambling, especially online, we can expect to see it cropping up in even more films. And, as these five examples show, the movies are certain to be all the better for it too.