Total Recall

Total Recall: Go All In with These Gambling Movies

Play your cards right with Dr. Mabuse, Maverick, and Rounders.

by | March 26, 2008 | Comments


Gambling is a great central theme for a film, if for no better reason it’s full
of drama, deceit, and the occasional reason to look at someone (hopefully
someone hot) under a table. With the appearance of
21
in theaters, we
thought it time to run through some of our personal highlights in the universe
of gambling movies.


Sure, you can throw a rock and hit an iffy gambler or thug at the tables (Scorsese‘s
Casino made that point perfectly clear) but the enduring lure of the
gambler revolves around his (or her) prowess at the game — which, if we
remember Rounders, has little to do with luck and lots to do with being
one step ahead. Card players (especially sexy ones) are the intellectual
equivalent of the football player: They have to see the plays coming from yards
away but when the play approaches their move should be liminal and give nothing
away. The gambler’s tricks mingle the cool of social skill and the intellect of
strategy with monk-like intensity. It’s no wonder James Bond played Baccarat —
icons are always enigmatic.



The
titular character of the
Fritz Lang classic
Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler
(1922, 89 percent on the Tomatometer)
is a master of magnetism, a hypnotist, an actor, an
impersonator with multiple identities and, of course, a gambler. The most common
translation of the title is Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, but “spieler”
literally means “player” — and that implies all Mabuse’s acts, not simply what
he does at the card table. While dealers in the upper-class vice dens of Weimar
Germany dole out cards, Mabuse (in crosscut) is shown playing his own game of
solitaire with a stack of IDs. This isn’t just about poker face — Mabuse is one
man playing a thousand and that puts a twist on his game. Lang constructs this
treatise on identity and the image while fully entrenched in his own, time
tested anxieties (death, authenticity, modernity).

Though its four-hour
running time (there are multiple versions on DVD) might seem daunting, the pic
is as magnetic as Mabuse himself, full of complex intrigue and ideas to untangle
— which is probably why it became such a successful serial in Germany, spawning
continuations. Keith Ulrich of Slant said, “Mabuse is a true bogeyman, a
hollow shell of surface tics with a terrifying dead-eyed stare.” Well, that’s
one way to describe a poker face.




Not
all iconic movie gamblers are menacing. Take
Maverick
(1994, 69 percent)
, for
example. The New York Times‘ Caryn James said, “You don’t have to know
anything about poker to guess that even away from the table, everyone in Maverick
is bluffing all the time.” James’ quote strikes two major chords: Firstly, the
film is as much about gambling as
Margot at the Wedding
is about floral
arrangements. Secondly, while the highest drama in Maverick happens at
the tables, bluffing and raising are practices just as actively pursued without
cards at play.


Inspired by the TV show of the same name,
Richard Donner‘s direction big-ups all
the conventions Westerns turned to cliché — but Donner does it in a gently
ironic way that makes all the Wagon-hanging, garter-gun-hiding hi jinx play well
for the megaplexes. Best of all is the way
Mel Gibson (then at the post-Lethal
Weapon
height of fame) plays dumb to get his way. It’s an easy game that he
doesn’t do as well as his adversary/love-interest
Jodie Foster (sporting an off-southern accent) but it’s charming, and what’s a poker game without a little
flirtation?



The
tension between the players is what drives
Rounders
(1998, 64 percent). Right
after Good Will Hunting,
Matt Damon was a hot commodity with everywhere
to go — not unlike his character in
John Dahl‘s neo-noir. Damon’s Mike
McDermott was years reformed from a career in poker when he opts to return in
order to help a friend pay off a loan shark. Time Out said, “Powerhouse casting
is the film’s strong suit,” but its abundant Indiewood cast isn’t its lone claim
to fame.

Rounders did for poker picture what
The Asphalt Jungle
did
for heist movies: it proves the specifics can be interesting. Most gambling
films skate right past gambling into the intrigue of cold reading or the quippy
play of bluffing, but not Rounders. Advised by a small army of
professional poker players, McDermott’s line, “it’s a game of skill,” echoes as
much in the dank corridors of New York’s underground dens than in the cavernous
halls of Las Vegas’ Bellagio. More famous is his incantation: “If you can’t spot
the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”

If
you need more to get your gambling fix, consider watching
John Garfield take a
punch in Robert Rossen‘s
Body and Soul
(100 percent), or see
Elliot Gould
and George Segal get dicey in
Robert Altman‘s
California Split
(90
percent). If you’d rather root for some sexy criminals maybe consider some
vintage Redford and
Newman in
George Roy Hill‘s
The Sting
(93 percent),
Sterling Hayden in
Kubrick‘s
The Killing
(1956, 96 percent) or
Sharon
Stone
in Scorcese’s Casino (83 percent).

Tag Cloud

cinemax documentary deadpool The Arrangement Esquire disaster Amazon Studios nbcuniversal science fiction Set visit series Sundance Now zombies TCM Alien DirecTV sequels Stephen King Trailer TV Land Biopics BBC One mission: impossible halloween nfl ratings YouTube dramedy GoT die hard dark Disney period drama Infographic Musicals Peacock superhero TCA football Travel Channel YA joker Film Festival Nominations romantic comedy criterion crime drama Musical Brie Larson Bravo HBO Max space Netflix Christmas movies Logo TBS Calendar ABC Family Awards Crackle richard e. Grant BET Awards MSNBC versus GLAAD Trivia cats australia anime Food Network Cosplay Mary Poppins Returns Western miniseries spy thriller justice league composers Character Guide Christmas Black Mirror TV renewals Extras worst chucky 007 Turner supernatural aliens Arrowverse LGBT Photos comiccon game show IFC DC Universe SDCC 2015 NBC nature biography tv talk Sundance TV Polls and Games spider-man historical drama Apple TV Plus movies films Sneak Peek The Academy BBC free movies Countdown politics slashers jamie lee curtis YouTube Premium crime BAFTA X-Men casting Grammys comics Video Games Ellie Kemper Pop TV Paramount Network 20th Century Fox PlayStation 45 President USA Marvel romance Discovery Channel twilight Comedy Central Shudder finale Martial Arts Certified Fresh 4/20 RT History A&E strong female leads MCU Year in Review sequel Comic Book ID Lifetime Mystery Freeform VOD concert foreign Anna Paquin Crunchyroll singing competition zero dark thirty war 71st Emmy Awards video on demand Holidays halloween tv revenge asian-american Adult Swim all-time diversity Academy Awards sag awards Tubi directors RT21 Lucasfilm Sony Pictures Shondaland children's TV screen actors guild blaxploitation spain Quiz 2019 Apple TV+ Pop Starz news Film japanese canceled TV shows fast and furious CW Seed Epix Mary poppins cops dragons Lifetime Christmas movies Women's History Month First Look stoner what to watch toronto Rocketman cooking psycho Mudbound Trophy Talk 72 Emmy Awards remakes green book Thanksgiving Turner Classic Movies archives Hear Us Out quibi 99% VH1 TCA 2017 Vudu animated batman comic Winter TV HBO Go 2020 FOX Election Marvel Studios Television Academy ITV Horror black VICE AMC Nat Geo indie scary movies Watching Series Valentine's Day Interview spanish language Tarantino BBC America binge WarnerMedia CMT LGBTQ Ovation screenings Paramount Fox News vampires docudrama 2016 cancelled TV shows Universal Star Wars Baby Yoda Disney+ Disney Plus Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Heroines Captain marvel Emmys Music thriller book Walt Disney Pictures Song of Ice and Fire HBO Fall TV The CW Marvel Television blockbuster mockumentary National Geographic E! james bond Schedule Funimation Hulu serial killer TCA Awards cancelled Pride Month Amazon child's play rotten movies we love Comics on TV universal monsters GIFs emmy awards stop motion christmas movies Pirates Showtime classics stand-up comedy cars ghosts Comedy obituary rotten OWN sports The Purge Binge Guide MTV Mindy Kaling Superheroes boxing BET DC Comics mutant Rock Action canceled Netflix toy story Warner Bros. worst movies Spike franchise travel Super Bowl Pet Sematary DGA Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt TIFF social media Summer fresh Television Critics Association Writers Guild of America unscripted Amazon Prime television Star Trek Best and Worst hispanic Rocky Classic Film Tomatazos Spectrum Originals political drama PaleyFest Marathons festivals Disney Channel Endgame Tumblr french CBS SXSW venice First Reviews New York Comic Con 2017 APB technology spanish award winner breaking bad TLC satire kids Fantasy adventure TCA Winter 2020 A24 NYCC ABC Masterpiece Creative Arts Emmys WGN Opinion movie PBS doctor who The Witch Toys TruTV best San Diego Comic-Con History cults Cannes Drama American Society of Cinematographers Country cancelled television discovery cancelled TV series El Rey Hallmark Spring TV Syfy sitcom comedies elevated horror FXX Emmy Nominations Dark Horse Comics hist name the review Amazon Prime Video rt archives dogs See It Skip It Disney streaming service Red Carpet Columbia Pictures crime thriller Sci-Fi game of thrones Awards Tour YouTube Red dceu zombie documentaries CNN transformers reviews Kids & Family USA Network laika psychological thriller anthology OneApp crossover critics Podcast werewolf Britbox golden globes Rom-Com Nickelodeon based on movie SundanceTV Avengers south america Oscars TNT Family adaptation Holiday Chernobyl spinoff The Walking Dead festival Animation Disney Plus Reality Competition 2018 Ghostbusters video facebook IFC Films 24 frames streaming latino reboot a nightmare on elm street police drama parents natural history TV E3 independent Reality cartoon boxoffice Apple 21st Century Fox robots Mary Tyler Moore witnail Premiere Dates Elton John talk show Teen medical drama FX on Hulu scorecard Hallmark Christmas movies hollywood harry potter italian theme song Sundance Box Office comic books renewed TV shows FX Acorn TV Lionsgate true crime Fox Searchlight dc Superheroe indiana jones Winners Cartoon Network Black History Month ESPN CBS All Access Pixar DC streaming service teaser