Based on the succinctly-titled memoir 'Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker' by Molly Bloom, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, ‘Molly’s Game’, follows Bloom (Jessica Chastain) who becomes the target of an FBI investigation of the underground poker empire she runs for Hollywood celebrities, athletes, business tycoons, and the Russian mob.
Of course, we all think we know something about Las Vegas casinos and card games, much of it shaped by movies about Danny Ocean planning to knock over all the top joints on the Strip, or the Corleone family making a move on Moe Greene and the Tropigala. Forget the obvious stuff like ’21’, ‘Rounders’, and ‘Casino’... here are five way more interesting films are that are about luck and the thrill of gambling.
A concentration camp survivor named Samuel Berg (Max von Sydow, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’), "the god of chance", runs a European casino. There he acts as a kind of talent scout, looking for especially fortunate souls to recruit into an underground gambling circuit. One of his workers is Federico (Eusebio Poncela), a man who "steals" other people's luck merely by laying a hand on them.
When Samuel Berg has a falling out with Federico and takes away his powers, Federico sets out to find the luckiest man alive (Leonardo Sbaraglia, ‘Wild Tales’), the lone survivor of a plane crash, in order to use his powers to overpower Samuel Berg in the one game he has never lost: Russian roulette.
Rooted in magical realism, ‘Intacto’ depicts an underground trade in luck, where fortune flows from those who have less to those who have more; the premise purports that luck can be amassed and transferred as any other commodity. The story follows several participants as they engage in literal games of chance, each one more risky than the last, to eliminate the unlucky.
No poker faces or counting cards here. In one game, the players' heads are smeared with treacle in a darkened room and a glowing praying mantis is released. Whoever the insect lands on, wins. In another, the competitors must run through a forest blindfolded with their hands behind their backs. The winner is the last one to hit a tree. Fresnadillo (’28 Weeks Later’), who wrote the screenplay with Andrés M. Koppel, teases out the implications of his film's Borgesian ideas with inventiveness and a great degree of elegance.
An aging gambler, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall, ‘Magnolia’), takes a down-on-his-luck young man (John C. Reilly, ‘Boogie Nights’) under his wing and begins to teach him the tricks of the profession in this dark drama set in the world of second-tier casinos and anonymous hotel rooms. They form an exclusive, almost paternal partnership, disrupted only by the arrival of a cocktail waitress (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a bullying conman (Samuel L. Jackson).
It's not a very fast-paced film; it's slow and languid and maybe not to a lot of people's taste. But it is very rich in character and human story – it harks back to those 1970s films when films were about people, and when a film about people was just as compelling as a film about an alien spaceship crash-landing in Texas or whatever.
Though on the surface, the story is a classic film noir setup, Paul Thomas Anderson's script (Jean-Pierre Melville's 1956 film ‘Bob le Flambeur’ was a major influence on this film) and deliberately paced direction take a detour into much deeper emotional territory - and the superior performances of all involved, especially Hall, respond in turn (Hall, Reilly and Hoffman regularly appeared in the director's subsequent films).
Expanded from the principal idea of Anderson's short film ‘Cigarettes & Coffee’ (1993), his original title for the film was 'Sydney' - one of the reasons why the film was renamed was because the studio thought people might think the film was about Australia.
Jack Manfred (Clive Owen, ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’) is a struggling writer, who on the advice of his father takes a job as a croupier at a local casino to make some extra money. He soon realises that it would be an excellent setting for a novel. He becomes an impassive observer of the gambling culture on both sides of the table, taking mental notes that are later incorporated into his book. However, as time goes on, he is seduced from observer to participant, gradually breaking all his own rules and justifying his decadence by convincing himself that he has become the character in his book.
This British neo-noir film from Mike Hodges (‘Get Carter’) examines the psychological aspects of the gambling casino from the inside out, allowing the audience to look at the trade from the casino's perspective, and following Jack’s struggle with fatalism (or chance) and grand design.
The script, by Paul Mayersberg (‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’) is multilayered, playing as it does with notions of identity and reality, and its father-son motif. It also recalls David Mamet's films about con-artists, ‘The Spanish Prisoner’ and ‘House of Games’.
Of course, we all think we know something about Las Vegas casinos and card games, much of it shaped by movies about Danny Ocean planning to knock over all the top joints on the Strip or the Corleone family making a move on Moe Greene and the Tropigala.
Weird plot turns in the last act aside; anyone can savour Owen's sleek, career-making performance and Mayersberg’s intelligent script, bristling with snappy dialogue and sharp, cynical noir narration, like: "Now he had become the still centre of that spinning wheel of misfortune.”
Axel Freed (James Caan, ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2’, ‘Elf’) is a New York City Harvard University-educated English professor and author with a gambling addiction that begins to spiral out of control. In the classroom, Freed inspires his college students with his interpretations of Fyodor Dostoevsky's work. Unbeknownst to them, Axel's reckless gambling has left him with a dangerously huge debt. His bookie, Hips (Paul Sorvino), likes the professor personally but threatens grave consequences if he does not pay up. Wheedling his mum for cash ensues.
Rather than being a clichéd film about a good man's decent into the hell of addiction, this is a film about a douchebag, from a good background, who happily wades deeper and deeper into his obsession. "If all my bets were safe they just wouldn't have any juice," Axel tells his bookie at one point.
‘The Gambler’ was the first produced screenplay by renowned super-creep and sentient neckbeard James Toback, who had worked as an English lecturer at the City College of New York and had a gambling problem. He originally wrote ‘The Gambler’ as a semi-autobiographical novel but halfway through started envisioning it as a film and turned it into a screenplay.
The film was later remade in 2014 by director Rupert Wyatt, starring Mark Wahlberg as the title character.
It was not very good.
A famous psychologist, Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse, ‘The Insider’, ‘Mr. Brooks’), decides to try to help one of her patients get out of a gambling debt. She visits the bar where Mike (Joe Mantegna, ‘Cars 2’, ‘Valentine’s Day’), to whom the debt is owed, runs poker games. He convinces her to help him in a game: her assignment is to look for "tells", or giveaway body language. What seems easy to her becomes a plot line too complex with triple-crosses for me to even begin explaining in this listicle.
Though Mamet was no stranger to screenplays (having written Sidney Lumet’s ‘The Verdict’, Brian De Palma’s ‘The Untouchables’ and Bob Rafelson's ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’), ‘House of Games’ was his first try behind the camera. In the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, Mamet worked from his own storyboards, which meticulously detailed how he wanted each shot to look.
With cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia, Mamet created a neon-lit world of glistening streets, smoky dark rooms, and occasional glaring daylight. Shadows lurk behind characters or cloak their faces and their intentions. This is not a world of half-truths, but one of deceit, where lies are as intricately staged as a play. Mamet’s screenplay also is airtight, as laden with traps for the viewer as it is for Crouse - Mamet is not asking to be judged realistically, he is after deeper psychological truths, matters that are impossible to solve rationally.
The cast was made up mostly of actors who had worked with Mamet in the theatre. Mantegna’s Mike is suave, savvy, and, in an odd way, plainspoken, as the conman who is as much a streetwise philosopher as a hustler, predatory without being malicious. Crouse plays her therapist as a study in directed composure and sexual repression who, captivated by Mike and his exciting, shadowy world, falls prey to the very obsession and compulsion she has clinically chronicled. As Mike says: “It's called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”