Casinos and gambling have long been home to some of cinema’s most iconic scenes. Home to a diverse range of characters from James Bond to Rain Man, the casino has provided the backdrop for some of the most loved films in modern pop culture. Part of this has been due to the iconic characters who have populated these scenes. But who are some of these icons of cinema, and what makes them so thrilling? Read below to find out!
The casino and the silver screen: a match made in heaven?
There are numerous reasons why scriptwriters have set some of the most iconic scenes in cinema history in a casino. Firstly, some films have used casinos and casino games to help define certain characters. Many casino games such as poker and blackjack are entirely solitary affairs, so scriptwriters have used these games to emphasise the ‘lone wolf’ nature of certain characters. James Bond, for example, is known to be an independent, mysterious figure who battles against developing an emotional attachment to other characters.
For this reason, poker is a perfect way of illustrating this, as it is a solitary game that requires intelligence and cunning to win – characteristics that Bond displays in spades. On the other hand, a game of pure chance such as roulette could be used to show that certain characters are impulsive, enjoy high amounts of risk, or prefer to leave things up to chance.
Secondly, casino games themselves are a perfect setting to set scenes in from a plot development perspective. Particularly in action movies, dialogue scenes can be hard to script from the perspective of keeping the audience engaged because they can often be quite boring and drawn out. If this dialogue is set against the background of something else, however, this can be used to heighten tension in the scene without detracting from the conversation itself. This means that you can keep up the pacing of the film without the dialogue bogging down the action. The James Bond series is well known for doing this, and some of the series’ lengthiest dialogue scenes have used a casino game as a backdrop.
Casino Royale – James Bond
Although in the original book series that gave life to the films, James Bond was a baccarat player, in the adaptations for the big screen, the titular hero has been primarily depicted as being a poker player. In fact, some of Bond’s most famous scenes have unfolded around the poker table.
A perfect example of this is Casino Royale, which was a modern reboot of the classic 1967 Bond film that first adapted the 1953 novel for the silver screen. In the original novel, Bond was a baccarat player, in part because the author who penned the Bond series was himself an avid baccarat player. However, for the on-screen adaptation, the protagonist is presented as being a poker player. The precise reasons for this are unknown, but knowing what we do about both games, poker is the much more cinematic of the two given that the games last for a lot longer and tension can be slowly built up over the course of a game.
Casino Royale is set primarily in a mysterious casino in Montenegro, which is where much of the action unfolds. The most iconic scene in the film sees Bond facing the film’s main villain Le Chiffre in a high-stakes Texas hold ’em tournament. Le Chiffre has entered hoping to use the winning prize to fund terrorist activities. As a prolific gambler, Bond is the perfect man to take him on, and in the casino scene, the two rivals square off around the poker table desperately trying to outsmart each other. Of course, Bond eventually gets the upper hand towards the end of the dramatic match, which sets up a standoff for later on in the film.
Casinos have been a core part of the James Bond universe since it first hit the silver screen, and a total of seven films from the series have had scenes involving casinos and casino games.
Rounders – Mike McDermott
When it comes to movies centred on casinos and gambling, there are few films as iconic as Rounders – a 1998 drama starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton. The film is set in the mysterious underground world of high-stakes poker. It follows the story of two friends who turn to high-stakes poker to pay off a large debt that is becoming due. The title of the film – Rounders – refers to an individual who travels around the city from one high-stakes game to another.
The film’s protagonist, Mike McDermott, is a young, talented poker player who gets caught up with a Russian crime boss called Teddy KGB. The mysterious Russian mobster gets the better of Mike in a poker game and obliterates his bankroll, winning it all in a dramatic scene. With this loss hanging over him, Mike vows to stop playing poker for good. However, as you might expect, this doesn’t last long. Not too long afterwards, he gets enticed back into the world of high-stakes poker by a childhood friend with some serious debts to pay.
The final scene of this now classic film pits Mike against Teddy once again, and what unfolds is an intense – and now iconic – game of poker. One of the reasons why this film, and this character in particular, have endured so well in the annals of cinema history is that the film was released just as online poker became popularised for the first time. For this reason, it’s well worth a watch!
Casino – Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein
You would be hard pressed to talk about the history of casinos and gambling in films and not mention Martin Scorsese’s 1995 classic Casino. Arguably, this is the archetypal gambler’s movie, and it has given us some of the most iconic gambling scenes ever, as well as some of the most well-remembered casino-playing characters.
Casino follows the adventures – and misadventures – of the protagonist, Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, played by Robert De Niro. Rothstein is loosely based on the real-life mobster Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal, who ran a network of Las Vegas casinos for the Chicago mafia in the 1970s. Ace is the composed, business-minded and calculated gangster archetype who runs a tight ship – albeit a criminal one. At first, it seems like Ace is made for the job. However, over time, his grip begins to loosen and things take off from there. Bogged down by his loose-cannon enforcer – played by Joe Pesci – and his hustler-inclined wife – played by Sharon Stone – Ace gets mixed up with an ex-con artist and a handful of corrupt politicians, which puts him in an increasingly precarious position.
Given that much of the film is set in a casino, it is hard to pick one scene as particularly iconic. However, Ace himself represents the archetypal gambler movie stereotype, and for this reason he goes down in movie history.
Rain Man – Raymond Babbit
Arguably, one of the most popular, and critically acclaimed, casino movies of all time is Rain Man, the 1988 classic starring Dustin Hoffman and a remarkably youthful Tom Cruise. Rain Man tells the story of the wheeler-dealer-type Charlie Babbit, played by Cruise, as he finds out that his estranged father has died suddenly and bequeathed the family’s fortune to his other son Raymond, played by Hoffman. When Charlie tries to reconnect with his estranged brother, he slowly figures out that despite Raymond’s severe autism, he has a photographic memory and a remarkable numerical ability.
Over the course of a cross-country car journey, they go through a wild series of events that profoundly changes both their lives. In the film’s most iconic scene, Charlie and Raymond amass a vast winning pot through a combination of audacity, luck and some serious card-counting abilities. This scene firmly cements both characters, but Raymond in particular, in the annals of cinema history.
The Hangover – Alan Garner
In an overt homage to Rain Man, one particularly memorable scene from the 2009 hit comedy The Hangover sees Zach Galifianakis take centre stage in a distinctly comedic take on the classic scene. In a bid to recoup losses incurred from an $80,000 debt, Zach Galifianakis’ character, Alan Garner, uses his knowledge of card counting to win a series of high-stake blackjack games. Set in the iconic Caesars Palace Hotel & Casino, Alan shows an uncharacteristic level of genius as he triumphantly saves the gang from serious trouble.
Become a casino hero today!
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Words: Sean McNulty