Gambling, as an activity, is pervasive in human activity, so it is no wonder it often plays a part, big or small, in the entertainment industry. While major films focus on games of chance based on cards or dice, or games of skill based on pool cues or darts, not to mention the far more common horse racing or other sports, roulette has gotten very little ‘face time’ in cinema.
This article will try to draw your attention to the times when this time-honored gambling device did, indeed, get onto the silver screen, and perhaps, at the end, make some suggestions about what stories could be told, should Hollywood ever decide to give roulette its due.
Now, don’t go looking for a movie by the name of Roulette; There is one, made in 2013, but unfortunately, from a PR standpoint, it is the worst thing to happen to the esteemed gambling device, as the point of the film concerns the so-called ‘Russian Roulette‘, the suicidal/homicidal dark antithesis of the venerable derivative of Blaise Pascal‘s attempt at a perpetual motion machine. And you should also overlook the Russian Roulette scenes in “Deer Hunter” (1978) Just don’t watch it. It isn’t pretty.
So, the good news is that there are actually quite a few movies that DO show roulette play, and a great number of them reveal some truth, and a lot of speculation, about the nature of the game. We will count them down, from what I call the least favorable, to the most favorable representations of the game.
In the 1998 German film, “Run, Lola, Run!” the lead character, in a desperate state, rushes in and plays roulette to try to win money to protect her boyfriend. In the film, she wins big on 20 black, but in the actual shot, the wheel is turning when it oughtn’t be, and not turning when it should. Confusing, to say the least. (Interesting note: The actual video shot of the ball landing on 20 black wasn’t a special effect, contrived image, or a trick shot… they actually got it right on one of the first takes!)
The concept of the one-time play, hit the single number, win big aspect is pretty pervasive in the movies. Usually the need for quick cash and an easy explanation for the big win is understandable, even to gambling neophytes and veteran movie goers… The money wheel and the roulette wheel are often synonymous in the mind of the plebeian viewer.
No example of this is more clear than the early 1970’s fascination with Black 17, James Bond’s bet of choice in Diamonds are Forever (1971). Bond actually had a gambling strategy, which is now well known; If you are reading this, you probably already were aware of it. So though Mr. Bond is rarely caught at the ‘little wheel’, his system surely gets a lot of mileage on his account.
Not only in modern times, but throughout the long history of the Roulette table have players gathered to try their luck or their strategy. In the 2002 ‘Masterpiece Theater’ rendition of ‘Daniel Deronda‘, the wheel actually plays a major role as matchmaker. In this Victorian drama, the key characters meet early in the story whilst playing roulette. As they play on, they reveal all their character flaws. They then spend the rest of the film sorting all the details out. Not much about the game is noted (my sources did not track the winning numbers, for instance), but it does favor the idea that Roulette is a slow and romantic gamble, suitable for men and women to play.
There was also in 1999 a movie called “Croupier” starred a new actor on the scene, Clive Owen (that may have been is ‘breakthrough’ role). Though based on a casino floor, the film is attempting to follow the character’s life and not the games he is administering. Though the roulette table figures into the story, it is the player reactions to wins or losses, not the particulars, that the camera focused upon. The lifestyles in the film are fairly accurate; they certainly don’t try to glamorize or exemplify the croupier as a life to be chosen for its pay, its glory, or its advancement possibilities.
Another film, from 1986 this time, also demonstrates the harshness and cold, stark realities of the gambling addict out of control, and how far one will go to succeed despite the sheer odds. The film is called Tricheurs (or Cheaters, as it was released in other markets). The film shares the story of a gambler who, after losing nearly everything, colludes with another to discover a mechanical means to ‘change’ the outcome of a roulette wheel, fundamentally biasing it artificially, and winning by that method. There is no marital infidelity in the film, but neither is there a moral justification or explanation for why cheating is the only alternative. The reasons certainly are not as noble as they are for this next film…
A rigged roulette wheel acts morally in the black-and-white classic, “Casablanca“(1942). In the scene, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) has learned that a fellow in his club is trying to win enough money to pay for false papers, that will let him and his lady escape the occupation. The roulette wheel, obviously not only biased, but controlled apparently by the croupier, spins up success for the character… 22 Black. Not just once; he lets it land twice. The man then has enough money for the papers, so Rick tells him to go, and never come back. (at least, until he fixes that rig!)
So, what can we learn from the use of a roulette wheel? Well, first of all, it is a great visual representation of the risk and reward of gambling, so it makes film challenges easier to identify with. Next, its long-life use, all the way back to late Renaissance, means we can anchor stories to casinos with their recognizable layout, no matter when in time the film occurs. And finally, one more film needs to be mentioned, to demonstrate a clear rule one can gather from motion pictures and the roulette wheel.
In the 1993 blockbuster, “Indecent Proposal“, a couple are on the brink of financial ruin, and decide to take their entire bankroll, all they own, to the Casino.This is a very bad idea, and of course, for this movie to exist, they have to completely lose it all, on one spin of the roulette wheel . They bet red, it comes in black, of course. The rest of the film is a denouement of that foolhardy choice. OF all the roulette wheels, in any casinos ever filmed, if you are going to win, be sure to play on black…17, 20, or just the color. Motion pictures just don’t pay off in red. Unless, of course, your name is Dorothy, and you are from Kansas.