When it comes to sheer drama, few settings can match a casino. The baize, the clatter of coins and (in older films) the columns of smoke, can only foreshadow a high-stakes game in which the winner takes all. Even if they last just five minutes, certain scenes have established themselves as truly legendary.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the flexibility they boast in acting as a plot device or an agent of transition to the climax. Successfully translating to both action and comedy films, we look today at a specialist in each genre and compare their effectiveness. First up is a film that needs no introduction.
Casino Royale – 2006 (Dir. Martin Campbell)
James Bond films and casino scenes are as closely entwined as Adam and Eve. Although many would argue that other Bond films boast more ‘iconic’ casino scenes, Casino Royale was a ‘flush or bust’ opportunity for EON, as the designated reboot of the Bond series. As the core part of the film’s narrative, playing the casino scene and expressing its inherent tension was absolutely key to the continued success of the franchise with Daniel Craig as 007.
Prior to the scene, Bond has a boyish and cavalier demeanour, though he is no less ruthless in his execution of assignments. With Bond and chief antagonist Le Chiffre locked in psychological warfare, with the latter also using underhanded tactics to vanquish Bond, it is here that the full extent of 007’s true vulnerability in the face of SMERSH is revealed. Thus, Bond is no longer seen as an invincible action hero. Events after the casino scene show just how vulnerable he is to the villain’s bullet and the might of SMERSH, especially since he survives his capture and torture by sheer luck rather than skill.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – 1998 (Dir. Guy Ritchie)
Guy Ritchie’s breakthrough masterpiece was as gangster as it was comedic. Within it came what could be loosely termed a ‘casino game’, hosted in the ring of a disused boxing gym by vicious antagonist Harry ‘The Hatchet’ Lonsdale. As far removed as it is possible to get from the fully-licensed Live Casino UK at William Hill, the underground game of three-card stud lost by protagonist Eddie is a watershed moment. The moment Lonsdale produces his winning combination, Eddie owes the crime lord £500,000, and the camera follows Eddie out of the gym and into the street outside.
During this poignant scene, the background shimmers in an eerie fashion to full illustrate that he is a dead man walking, and even (nearly) twenty years after its release, it remains a true representation of lost hope and the dangers faced by being too ambitious in the wrong game. On a more subtle level, however, the scenes leading up to Eddie and his gang’s daring plot to recoup the money are a representation of British ‘bulldog’ spirit.
Combined with a healthy degree of gallows humour, it is little wonder that this sense of bravado resonated well with its primary target audience.
The winner is…
Both directors deserve kudos for inducing casino scenes so well into genres that are not typically associated with a game that fundamentally involves sitting at a baize table and playing with cards. For Campbell, the main challenge lay in making a sedentary activity the focal point in a film whose audience would expect non-stop action. Meanwhile, Ritchie’s true genius came to the fore when he was tasked with directing a gaming scene in which players participate in a game where few words are required, which stands in direct contradiction to the speech and delivery skills needed in the comedy genre.
However, when one considers the budgets involved in each film, and the fact that Richie had no explicit need to include a casino scene, it is Richie who perhaps uses the iconic card game to in a more effective way. Furthermore, he had no novel on which to base his work, giving him an extra edge in this unique directorial battle.