Greatest movies featuring casinos
Gambling in general, and casinos in particular, are a great setting for many stories. From classical works of literature, like those written by Dostoevsky or Baudelaire, to some of the best films made in Hollywood.
Struggles and challenges connected to gambling can be incorporated into very different kinds of stories, and this is why we have brilliant films of very different genres about this topic.
Let’s take a look at a few of the greatest examples.
The Gambler (1974)
Starting with a 1974 cult classic film about a successful university professor of literature (James Caan), who seemingly has everything: a career, the respect of his family, and the love of beautiful Billie (Lauren Hutton). But unknown to his students and loved ones, our anti-hero Axel Freed has a crippling gambling addiction.
The film first shows Axel’s exploits in Las Vegas casinos and then how his gambling spirals into all kinds of dangerous activity. The film explores the death wish that is behind Axel’s addiction, and that goes far beyond gambling. Axel himself lays out a theory to his bookie Hips (Paul Sorvino) that gamblers like him really want to lose. Axel is out for blood, his own – and that is, ultimately, what he gets.
If we talk about the history of casinos in the US, and specifically the history of Las Vegas, the life of the American gangster Bugsy Siegel cannot be overlooked. Bugsy was a gangster of the classical era of American organized crime, inspired the character of Moe Green from The Godfather, and was, according to many, the man who built Las Vegas.
In this film, he is wonderfully portrayed by Warren Beatty. The film shows Bugsy’s struggles in the 1940s to control the gambling business in California, as well as his visits to Nevada, the only state with legal gambling at the time, and how his vision of Las Vegas as a gambling paradise first occurred. This film is, like The Gambler, written by James Toback (who has recently found himself in a lot of trouble).
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Casino. Yes, it is an obvious choice, but there is a good reason that this film is on everyone’s mind when it comes to Las Vegas and the gambling industry. Scorsese’s masterful direction, and wonderful portrayals from Robert De Niro (Sam “Ace” Rothstein), Sharon Stone (Ginger McKenna), and Joe Pesci (Nicky Santoro) give enough reason for this film to have the status it does.
But the film is also significant for us because it shows the “golden era” of the Mob’s control of Las Vegas. If a gangster like Bugsy Siegel had the initial vision of Las Vegas, later gangsters like Rothstein (inspired by the life of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, who during the 1970s ran the Fremont, Stardust, Hacienda, and Marina casinos in Las Vegas for the Chicago Outfit), turned that vision into reality.
Thankfully, today not only does the Mob not control Las Vegas anymore, but everyone can live their movie fantasies in a very safe way by joining online casinos and playing various games as seen here.
Hard Eight (1996)
We will end this shortlist with Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature film, Hard Eight. The film developed from a short Cigarettes & Coffee and the main character Sydney (portrayed by Philip Baker Hall) previously appeared in the film Midnight Run. Hard Eight is a study of a lonely man trying to survive in Las Vegas, and who at some point meets people that he wants to help and by doing that tries to atone for the sins of his past.
This film not only perfectly understands Las Vegas but is a real gambling movie whose story features all of the most important American gambling toponyms: Las Vegas, Reno, Atlantic City…
There is a timeless and universal quality to stories about gambling. Such movies usually deal with existential questions that go far deeper and beyond a mere story just about gambling. Even if we look at the very short list that we made for this article, we can see how such movies cover a very wide thematic ground, from gangster films to existential dramas.
This means that almost anyone can find something for themselves in such movies. But regardless of your tastes, you will not be bored by any of the ones that we suggested.