The House Always Wins: The Gambling Drama as an Allegory for Filmmaking

“You said that you felt alive for the first time while playing the card table. What do you want me to understand?”
By  · Published on August 18th, 2017

“You said that you felt alive for the first time while playing the card table. What do you want me to understand?” – Joe, in Rounders

There are literally hundreds of films about gambling. I think it’s safe to say that the gambling film is its own genre. I mean, the gambling film even has a monopoly over the city of Las Vegas. And it’s a genre that might never die out. In fact, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut is an adaptation of a poker memoir. But what makes gambling so cinematic and why will Hollywood never stop making them? For sure, the Hollywood gambling film’s glamorous aesthetics align with its mission to entertain. Casinos, or at least the ones in James Bond films, overwhelm you with a decked-out decor and beautiful women.

Gambling films are so popular that they’ve actually had a direct impact on people’s views of addiction and gambling. And that includes the medical community. In fact,  in the movie The Gambler, the protagonist Axel exhibits the symptoms of a pathological gambler, but ‘pathological gambling’ was only included in the DSM-III (the American Psychiatric manual) 6 years later.

But first and foremost, let’s explore the genre. The gambling drama covers two categories: the heist and the addiction. The heist usually lends itself to sleek ensemble comedy/dramas, like the Oceans Trilogy, in which you’re always rooting for the thieves to win. And the addiction drama is usually a character study that sees a man (yes, always a man) risk everything to satisfy their addiction. Films like Fever Pitch from 1985 and Joe Swanberg’s Netflix Original Win I t All are great examples of that.

To look a little closer at the genre, within those categories there are 3 different modes:

  1. Casino games of chance (roulette)
    2. Card games involving more skill (poker)
    3. Slot-machines

Of those 3 types of gambling, the most commonly used on in cinema is by far poker. Most of it has to do with the level of skill required to succeed in poker. Watching someone try their chance at a slot-machine for 90 minutes doesn’t translate as well as a suave gentleman playing poker-face cool while engaging in sly repartees with his competition. On top of that, the necessity for self-control in poker heightens both the tension and the character’s subjectivity. Usually, the audience can see the player’s hand, or it’s a complete surprise. Indeed, poker exhibits a kind of competitive toughness. Whoever loses control and shows face loses. Indeed, gambling films often rely on these gender tropes to sell their glamor or gristle.

Either way, poker and blackjack are the more cinematic of the casino games.

Another reason why the gambling drama is so popular is that it functions as an allegory for filmmaking. The financial pressures of making a film are dramatized in the gambling genre. Doubtless financing a film is usually less life-threatening than losing a few million in blackjack, for instance. But negotiations with studio heads and financiers and producers forces you to develop thick skin. I mean, Harvey Weinstein is called The Punisher for a reason. So yes, financing a film is a gamble. For the studio head and the director. The pressure is both felt and exerted on both sides. But it’s not a matter if putting your chips in the slot and hoping that something will come of it. So self-revealing dramas about addiction and poor self-control dramatize the art of making a film. As Richard Brody points out in his review of Win It All, the allegory amplified the necessary skill in “yielding control and confronting the compulsions that both motivate and override the rational calculations of moviemaking.”

In the heist film, the premise of con-ing the house is a utopian capitalist story, in which the underdogs use teamwork to defeat the bullies of global capitalism. Indeed, though dealing in crime, the heist film presents a very subversive message. Take Ocean’s 11 as an example. In the film, Danny Ocean is on a mission to defeat the beast of capitalism, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). He assembles a group of 11 talented con artists, whose skills are being squandered elsewhere and promises them “eight figures, divided equally.” And the values on display in this film are of friendship and loyalty, not greed. And after paying Benedict back in Ocean’s Twelve, they donate his portion to charity because he attempts to steal from the gang.  A director like Soderbergh, whom I’ve written about before, is both in and out of the Hollywood system. Thus, the “ethical” heist in Ocean’s 11 almost resembles the financing for his latest feature. How to take the money away from the artless Hollywood bullies and redistribute it among the artists. The House always wins. Until it doesn’t.

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