If it wasn’t for the coverage that gambling received in Hollywood blockbusters most people wouldn’t know the slightest thing about blackjack, poker, or roulette. These classic casino games would remain a mystery to all but dedicated casino goers.
However, thanks to Casino Royale everyone knows the basics of Texas Hold ‘Em, and thanks to Rain Man we all know what it takes to win a game of blackjack. Throughout the years’ casinos and gambling have been extensively featured in Hollywood films as theatrical devices.
But why do writers and directors continue looking to casino’s and gambling to form the plot or backdrop of scenes in their films?
Casinos are Glamorous
There has been a sharp rise in the number of gamblers opting to play at online casino rather than a traditional bricks and mortar one. However, what was the last film featuring an online gambler that you can remember watching and actually enjoying? The point that we’re labouring to make here is that gambling in of itself is not exciting enough of a pursuit to captivate viewers.
What makes gambling exciting for viewers is the glamorous setting of a glitzy casino and the sense of occasion and drama that that brings to the screen.
One of the earliest and best examples of casinos being used as a theatrical device is from the 1936 film The Story of a Cheat directed by the iconic Sacha Guitry. The story follows a young orphan who flees to Monaco vowing to become rich by cheating the principality’s famous casino.
Whilst the storyline and the writing make the film a hit, it is the glamorous backdrop of the stunning Casino de Monte Carlo that makes the film a visual masterpiece.
You can watch Sacha Guitry’s iconic 1936 film The Story of a Cheat in full on YouTube
Gambling is Tense
If you have ever enrolled on a creative writing course or studied film at some level, you will be aware of the role of conflict in storytelling. The three most important stages in storytelling are context, conflict and closure and almost any film ever produced follows this pattern.
Conflict is added to a narrative to build tension amongst viewers, to get them on the edge of their seats and have them begging for resolution. Some writers introduce conflict and build tension through intense dialogue and nuance whereas others rely on outside factors such as gambling.
Whenever a gambling scene is introduced to a film it is guaranteed to add conflict and tension because money is at stake. However, just as in real life it isn’t only the money on the table that is at stake, the protagonist’s reputation is also on the line.
In most classic casino games money can be won or lost in an instant, which places a great emotional weight on minute details. This makes gambling an easy topic for writers and directors to use to inject conflict and tension into their movies.
Whether it is a protagonist’s life savings on the line or quite simply their willpower in a battle against addiction, gambling scenes are always guaranteed to raise the heartbeats of audiences.
The tension of a poker game brings the drama to a crescendo in the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale
Gamblers are a Huge Demographic
In an ideal world we like to think of films as great expressions of art that are produced to not only thrill and captivate audiences but to convey deeper messages about life and society. However, in the real world most films are not produced with this altruism in mind, rather they are produced for solely commercial reasons.
Bryan Singer’s 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody would not have been produced had Queen been anything other than a global phenomenon. As it turned out, the film was received well by critics and fans, but even if it hadn’t had been, it would still have made money because of the millions of Queen fans around the planet.
Likewise, gambling has a huge reach around the planet with industry statistics estimating the global share of gamblers to be just over 1.6 billion. With so many gambling fans across the world it’s fair to say that any at least well produced film about the pastime would be a commercial success.
The 1998 film Rounders directed by John Dahl is a perfect example of a film that succeeded purely because of gambling’s global appeal. Objectively it is not a good film, the plot is weak and bland and the accent of John Malkovich as ‘Teddy KGB’ is as bad as it is offensive.
Despite that, Rounders went on to make a healthy profit at the Box Office and is hailed as a cult classic by poker fans. Proving that a movie about gambling doesn’t have to be good to make money, it just has to be realistic enough to interest gamblers.