Film writers and producers have always loved a casino scene. For one thing, casinos have the visual glitz and glamour that works well on the cinema screen. They signify wealth, romance, style, and a way of life that the audience can aspire to. They are also an excellent environment for showing characters interacting. How a character behaves in a casino can give us pointers to their personality overall and the nature of their relationship with the other principals.
Casino scenes are also a gift to the narrative. The hero faces a challenge. There is an obvious risk, and although their life may not be in danger (though it could be), their livelihood is almost certainly at stake. Large sums of money can be won or lost on the turn of a card or the spin of a wheel. Victory goes to the one with the strongest nerves, but the element of chance keeps everything unpredictable to the last moment. Of course, in a scripted movie, nothing is left to chance, but maintaining the illusion is all-important.
As a result, casino scenes are gripping emotionally. There is hope, and there is a disappointment. There are anxiety and anticipation. Sometimes there’s humor, but most of all, there is tension and plenty of it. Whether you’re at a real table or one of the instant play online casinos, the rush of playing for real money is as real for the audience as for the participant. That’s why, for suspense, style, character development, and risky action, a movie casino scene just can’t be beaten.
When you think of casino scenes in the movies, the James Bond franchise must immediately spring to mind. Almost every entry in the hugely popular series features a set-piece in a casino, but the die was cast in the first Bond film, starring Sean Connery as 007. As he sits down to play blackjack, we hear the very first use of his catchphrase, “The name’s Bond, James Bond.”
A vodka martini, shaken not stirred, a beautiful woman by his side, an immaculate tuxedo, and very high stakes indeed: all the classic ingredients are already in place, and subsequent films would merely rearrange them. The proof of this scene’s iconic status is also proved by the number of times it’s been parodied: Austin Powers: Man of Mystery springs immediately to mind.
In this Oscar-winner from 1988, Dustin Hoffman plays Raymond Babbit, an autistic savant alongside his hustler brother Charlie (Tom Cruise), who figures out a way to utilize his sibling’s mathematical genius to win some serious money. The iconic scene is the one where we first see Raymond’s card-counting skills in action. The film gives us an unforgettable montage of the action, with Raymond and Charlie in matching grey suits, Ray repeating “Hit me, hit me” as the chips pile up. Again this has been much parodied, with the best example featuring in The Hangover.
Widely considered one of the greatest casino movies ever, this 1995 film features many classic scenes at the gaming tables. The most iconic is when the cowboy takes off his boots and puts his feet up on the table. Eventually, boss Ace Rothstein (Robert de Niro) calls security to have him removed – head first.
Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau play unemployed actors hoping a Vegas trip will change their luck in this classic bro-com from 1996. The classic scene? When they arrive after a six-hour drive from California and enter the casino, only to find themselves in a high stakes game with a room full of bikers and pensioners.
“Always double down on 11” turns out to be the worst advice ever, and they’re quick $300 down. This scene is iconic in the way it upends both the characters’ expectations and cinematic convention and how it perfectly combines tension, the cringe factor, and laugh-out-loud comedy. There’s also the hubris of the pair masquerading as high rollers only to quickly realize they’re seriously out of their league next to a few little old ladies and some distinctly dressed-down guys.
Honorable mentions must also go to the scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo enter the casino high on mescaline and ether. Their hallucinations come terrifyingly to life in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of the Hunter S Thompson novel. Although not technically set in a casino, we should also mention the nail-biting final scene of Rounders, where Michael McDermott (Matt Damon) goes head to head at poker with KGB (John Malkovich).
Finally, even though Bond has already been covered, the high-stakes game of Texas Hold ‘em in Casino Royale (2006) is one of the great casino scenes in cinema history, although Bond’s win, a straight flush beating a full house, is also one of the most unlikely.