Blackjack may be the game of choice in Robert Luketic’s 21, which hits theaters today. But in honor of the American public’s fascination with all things Vegas, MM takes a look at some of Rus Thompson’s picks for the best poker movies of all time.
The Sting (1973, George Roy Hill)
There is really only one card game in this picture, but it is the “hook” which catches the “mark,” Robert Shaw’s arrogant gambler, and kicks the whole plot into gear. By the time con artists Paul Newman, Robert Redford and their band of merry tricksters are finished, Shaw is out a cool half-million. The movie is brisk and artificial. The sets appear to be deliberately made from recycled, backlit props and the intertitle cards that announce the plot turns—“The Set-Up”, “The Wire”—clunk up the action. But Newman and Redford are immensely likable, reminding us that buddy movies work best when the stars and the story are both smart and amiable. In the high-stakes poker game scene, Newman pretends to be a drunken buffoon who out-cheats Shaw by switching cards on the big hand. The scene is nicely staged, but I wished it had revealed how he made the swap.
House of Games (1987, David Mamet)
A game of five-card draw also gets things going here, and everything is revealed. That’s the fun in this mind game of a movie, a classic Mamet-ian exercise in man-woman verbal and sexual jousting. Lindsay Crouse plays a best-selling author and psychologist trying to help a patient who says he’ll be killed if he doesn’t pay off a gambling debt to Mike (Joe Mantegna), a con artist who hangs out at a place called the House of Games. Crouse is attracted to Mike and his profession, and she and we get a crash course in the con. Although things end up bloody, the poker game that hooks Crouse is superb theater.
When Crouse sees liquid leaking out of the gun that one of the players (Ricky Jay) is using to threaten her, she realizes it’s a water pistol and she’s being had. When Mantegna chides Jay for putting water in a perfectly fine replica of a real pistol, Jay defends himself by saying, “I’m not going to threaten someone with an empty gun!” It’s lines like that one and this—“I’m from the United States of Kiss My Ass”—that make House of Games a literate delight.
Kaleidoscope (1966, Jack Smight)
Some body on the director’s creative team discovered a new kind of kaleidoscopic camera filter and decided to make a film around it. That’s the feel of this swinging ’60s, artsy-smartsy, comedy-drama. It teamed transatlantic hipsters Warren Beatty and Susannah York in a story about a playboy who comes up with what turns out to be an ingenious plan to bilk a Monte Carlo casino: he breaks into the factory that makes the playing cards and marks the photographic plates so he can “read” the decks. The cards are shipped off, he shows up at the tables and wins big. He’s caught (although we’re not sure how) and forced by Scotland Yard to play a big stakes poker game against a narcotics smuggler using the marked cards. But when the decks turn out to be old, unmarked ones, Beatty must use his wits instead of deception to win. The movie is insufferable, but it’s almost worth watching just for the big moment when the cards are revealed (a must-have staple of every poker film) and Beatty’s priceless reaction.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965, Norman Jewison)
This is the granddaddy, the Mona Lisa, le grand fromage, of poker movies. Jewison took over for Sam Peckinpah, and the movie could use more of Sam’s anachronisms and less of Jewison’s clichéd sentimentality. But this is compensated for by the presence of two of the finer vixens of the New Hollywood, Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld—two beauties who make Cameron Diaz and Gwyneth Paltrow look like anorexic game show models.
There is also fine talent behind the camera. The New Orleans location photography by Philip H. Lathrop is first-rate, the script is by Terry Southern and Ring Lardner Jr. and Hal Ashby—who started out as an editor—deftly cuts between the banal romantic scenes and the more impressive poker sequences.
Steve McQueen plays the talented upstart who takes on the old master Edward G. Robinson in a marathon game of five-card stud. The tension-wracked final hand is worth watching again and again for a crash course in how to bluff and when to bet. When Robinson is scolded for making what appears to be a reckless raise, he sums up the game’s timeless, intractable appeal: “It’s gets down to what it’s all about… making the wrong move at the right time.”
For Thompson’s full article, visit http://www.moviemakersub.moviemaker.com/directing/article/poker_movies_2967.