The tension involved in gambling makes it a terrific vehicle for storytelling either in word or film. The opportunity for quick cut shots, closeups, and long shots make it a veritable "old-time shootout" at a green felt table, poker or pool.
Hollywood has made some truly memorable movies about gambling. Some are tragic, and some are whimsical. Some are even both. Check out these few, in no particular order.
The Sting (Image credit: theguardian.com)
This offering, which is driven along nicely by Marvin Hamlisch's performance and arrangement of Scott Joplin's famous rags, including "Pineapple Rag," "The Entertainer," and "The Ragtime Dance," follows some 1930s grifters and con men as they set up a big score taking down Doyle Lonegan, played brilliantly by the late Robert Shaw.
In The Sting Redford and Newman, a veritable "Butch and Sundance" of the Great Depression, reel him slowly in with the oldest con on the books: the wire. And, they do it at the poker table too. Lonegan cheats, and Newman's Henry Gondorff cheats better than he does! Lonegan expressing displeasure at not being able to call Gondorff out for cheating better than he does is almost worth the price of admission alone.
The Hustler (Image credit: imdb.com)
The story of Edward "Fast Eddie" Felson is the quintessential tale of the antihero. He's "the hustler" of the film's title, a small-time pool shark who has more skill than either brains or character. His need to dominate at the pool table drives him to use people. The target of his obsession is Minnesota Fats, and the character was so indelible that Rudolf Wanderone, a legendary pool champion and trickster who ruled pool halls in the 1950s, took on the nickname. Fats was the rough-and-tumble "Mr. Hyde" to Willie Mosconi's "Dr. Jekyll" during that time.
Jackie Gleason portrayed Fats, and he made all of his own shots. Paul Newman, as Fast Eddie, made most of his, too, but Mosconi did all of the super-tough shots, including the famous Masse. Gleason was a well-known pool expert, but Newman had to learn after scoring the role.
The gambling in The Hustler is merely a symptom of Felson's need to win at all costs even when he loses. Perhaps the best exchange in the whole show is when Felson says, "So, I got talent. What beat me?" And George C. Scott, as Bert Gordon, says, "Character." The "moral of the story" is that Felson only wins big after a personal tragedy, meaning he had to sacrifice everything for it.
A Game of Pool (Image credit: imdb.com)
A Game of Pool
A Game of Pool is so good that it's not even a movie. It's a TV episode from "The Twilight Zone." Jack Klugman is Jesse Cardiff, a wannabe from Chicago who is always complaining that he would be considered the greatest pool player in history if not for "Fats Brown," played by Jonathan Winters.
One day, Fats decides from the afterlife that he's tired of Jesse's bellyaching, and he walks out of the shadows into Jesse's pool hall and lays it out for him. Basically, he says, "OK, pal, you've got your chance. There's just one catch. If I win, it means you lose your life."
This is the ultimate gamble, a Mephistophelean bargain with a pool hustler 15 years dead who comes back to life to give a pool room Faust his chance. The two match each other shot for shot, talking all the time to each other. Fats warns Jesse about the match, but Jesse thinks he's just trying to distract him. Finally, they're tied, and there is a single ball left on the table. Fats misses his shot and leaves Jesse an absurdly easy tap-in. Jesse makes the shot and gets his fondest wish.
Fats, however, says, "Thank you." Jesse is upset and calls Fats a sore loser, but he finally realizes the awful truth. He is the greatest ever, but the price is much more than he thought. You see, even years and years after his own death, he is still summoned from the afterlife to pool halls around the country to face an unending parade of challengers and other wannabes. At the same time, relieved of his duty as the "best ever," Fats just goes fishing.
Grinders (Image credit: imdb.com)
Not every film has to hit the local cinema or appear on Netflix to be either moving, applicable, or both. "Grinders" is a documentary about the the underground scene in Toronto. The title refers to the masters of these illegal games, from the daring hotshots who are addicted to the action to the hardened criminals who control that action. Some of these "grinders" play 150-200 separate games a day.
Into this world steps Matt Gallagher, an out-of-work filmmaker who decides to try playing Texas Hold 'Em for a living and record what happens. Along the way, he meets several people and chronicles not only how the game affects their lives but also what they think of their collective lot in life. Matt also explains that he dreams of moving to Las Vegas, and two of his acquaintances in "Grinders" have similar aspirations.
This is not a block buster and won't go viral on Netflix. It is, however, a deeply introspective and accurate portrayal of the subject matter. Critics who have seen it praise Matt's approach. Like the producer of any good documentary, Gallagher lets the material do the talking except for a curt, "Please gamble responsibly," warning.
Not every TV show or cinema offering involving betting on cards, pool, or other things has to be considered great. "Maverick," for example, was a fun bit of fluff. "Rounders" is a solid take on Texas Hold 'Em, but its plot is decidedly like "The Hustler," which is an all-time classic. Critics may never like a Las Vegas block buster about an improbably good-looking protagonist who always wins when dealt 7-2 off-suit, but it's probably just a matter of time before some studio makes one.