|Robert Shaw, Robert Redford and Paul Newman aren’t all
in on The Sting (1973), directed by George Roy Hill.
When Jennifer Wood, the managing editor of MM,
asked me to come out of my self-imposed retirement from the “Home
Cinema” column to write an article for the 10th anniversary issue
of this magazine, my first thought was, “Great! I’ll write that
article on the 10 best DVD releases of the decade or a rundown
of my favorite film of each year of MovieMaker’s existence.” But
the assignment she offered was considerably less sweeping: poker
At first this seemed much too puny of a sub-genre
to be worthy of a 10th anniversary column. But when I began thinking
parallel between playing poker and publishing an independent magazine,
the idea gelled. Both pursuits involve tremendous risks of money
and ego; the up-then-down rhythms of a single night of poker-playing
mirror the month-to-month financial rollercoaster of putting out
an indie mag. In a game of five-card draw, your winnings depend
on the strategy and luck of the other players, while in printing
a magazine you’re at the mercy of fickle advertisers and whether
the competition beat you to an exclusive story. Also, like a good
run at the tables the night before, you’re only as good as your
last issue. When you’re talking about Tim Rhys, the publisher and
editor-in-chief of MM, he’s a gambler who knows when to hold ’em
and who has never had to fold ’em.
So, okay… poker movies. Of course, when I really
put my mind to it, I could come up with very few films that were about poker.
The 1998 release, Rounders, caught the arcane lingo of the
table, but John Dahl’s direction was clumsy and the story implausible,
particularly when the John Malkovich character so obviously gave
away his bluff. And who could buy the pre-adolescent Matt Damon
as a card shark?
It’s Poker Movie Mania!
Does the recent poker phenomenon have you
This spring, Dimension Films will release Shade, starring Sylvester
Nashville moviemaker A.W. Vidmer has completed
Another indie is The Big Blind,
At least two feature length documentaries
In addition, MM Publisher
Though not yet in production, Warner Brothers’ Lucky
Now, onto the slate of new backgammon movies…
I remember a film called 5 Card Stud,
which offered the minor shock of Dean Martin’s lily-white ass,
but very little card playing. Or am I thinking of The War Wagon and
Kirk Douglas’ lily-white
ass? Both films seemed to turn up on the ass end of drive-in double
bills I attended as a kid.
Tombstone was of course about the infamous
Earp-Clanton feud, with almost the entire cast decked out in
huge freakin’ moustaches
and scarves by Versace. But Val Kilmer shines as the clean-shaven,
tubercular Doc Holliday: a Latin-spouting aesthete and poker player
extraordinaire. Anybody, however, who has tried to play a hand
of Spit in the Ocean after their sixth Jack Daniels would scoff
at the card scenes: if Holliday was really the raging drunk Kilmer
portrays him to be, he wouldn’t be able to tell a full house from
an Airstream trailer.
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels contained a thin card-playing
subplot, but the movie was meretricious and dumb. There was a funny
poker scene in Stranger Than Paradise, but all I can recall
from it was the mighty bulk of the late Rockets Redglare filling
up a corner of the frame.
|If Holliday was really the raging drunk
Kilmer portrays him to be, he wouldn’t have
been able to tell a full house from an Airstream trailer.
Ocean’s Eleven included a scene where Brad Pitt is teaching
the finer points of poker to a table full of young Hollywood actors
playing themselves. As with nearly everything Pitt has done in
his career, the bit would have played better had he let his movie
star guard down just a bit more.
Hal Ashby’s forgotten Lookin’ To Get Out could
just as well be the inscription on the late director’s headstone. This
ragged study of two losers who con their way into a Vegas hotel
is sad and scruffy and unsatisfying, but Jon Voight and Burt Young
manage to convey the self-delusional bravado of all those fringe
characters you see wandering the city’s boulevards.
More searching on Google turned up other titles: A Big Hand
for the Little Lady. A Man Called Sledge. Run. A short
scene in John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn. And, of course, Maverick,
a film I’ll admit to not having watched but scanned. Both
the estimable Time Out Film Guide and the more plebian Leonard
Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide placed Maverick somewhere
on the scale between “lackluster” and “lackadaisical.”
Finally, I came upon the Web link for Lesbian
Strip Poker Pictures. I’d still be surfing that one if it wasn’t for the lure of the
large fee I’ll receive for writing this article.
There are a few films that explore the interrelationships and
psychological issues of gambling, some of them memorable: California
Split, one of Robert Altman’s small but elegiac pictures from
the ’70s, features George Segal and Elliot Gould as a couple of
soup-stained-tie casino vagabonds. These are guys who’d rather
use their downtime to play Keno than to, say, wash up. There’s The
Gambler, with James Caan’s near-existential portrait of a man
addicted to the pain-pleasure principle of winning and losing.
And Scorsese’s overlooked masterpiece, Casino, nailed the
authentic casino atmosphere—the marathon of night, noise and lights—better
than any other film. Let It Ride featured Richard Dreyfuss
as a compulsive gambler having the luckiest day of his life at
a Florida racetrack. This may have been one of Dreyfuss’ first
post-coke addiction movies—but he was still great. Hard Eight,
Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film, took a downbeat look at lowbrow
gamblers in Reno.
I happen to have lived in Reno for six months
back in 1981. One night I came up $200 short on my apartment
rent, due the next day.
With $24 dollars in my pocket, I started playing blackjack at 9:00
p.m. and left the tables at dawn with $260. Although it was chump
change, I’d experienced the electric surge a gambler feels when
well-placed betting morphs into a streak. That electricity is harder
to capture within the architecture of a game of seven-card stud.
But for the poker aficionado, or even the casual spectator—and
there seem to be a lot of you out there, judging by the surge in
ESPN, Travel Channel and Bravo broadcasts of high-stakes poker
action—here are a few worthy titles that due justice to the game:
|Tuesday Weld and Steve McQueen heat things up in Norman Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid (1965).
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
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
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
Kaleidoscope (1966, Jack Smight)
Somebody 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
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.” MM