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Vegas has been a part of my family’s vacations for so many years that I can remember when the sole kid-friendly attraction was Circus Circus. Excalibur was yet to be crowned with its colorful castle towers. Watching television while the outside world buzzed with color and movement was an experience my sister and I had in our hotel room. To be honest, the breakfast spreads were better than anything on the Strip when I was a small lad. (For some reason, I can still recall piles of tiny silver-dollar apple pancakes.) A thick fog of smoke and jingling bells billowed from casino floors as my dad drove us around in their old station wagon. It was a physical and mental assault. After a while, the sound of money clattering from slot machines kept me awake. The empty desperation of it all is what I recall more than the silver-dollar apple pancakes. In Las Vegas, I could see the frayed edges of fabric as well as the squared jaws of people who were spending more than they should if I glanced at anything for more than a few seconds.
After years of abstinence from alcohol, it’s hard for me to put into words the exhilarating sensation of taking my first sip. The thunderclap that occurs when you get the hit from whatever it is that you’re chasing: liquor, sex, food, or the split-second dopamine high of a Facebook “like” In the end, gambling is just like any other form of gambling. Sometimes, it’s not the kind of lighthearted levity you’d find in a movie like Swingers or even The Hangover: Part 1. Just like with any other dependence on drugs or alcohol, one day the bottom will give out. When I was old enough to drink and play blackjack, I’d blow through all my money in a matter of minutes before cashing in my credit card balances and going out to play again. Exactly. Movies and television have a way of capturing these emotions, too, whether it’s the rush of winning or the agony of losing. This is what it’s like to be caught on the roulette wheel of addiction, with no idea where you’ll end up.
1. Rain Man (1988)
This shot conveys the euphoria of casino gambling in a way that few other images can. For fewer than three minutes, it captures the full force of Las Vegas’s kinetic explosions, due to Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) and his savant brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). From every aspect available, the casino floor bombards Raymond with its hypnotic hypnosis. At first, he’s confused and unsure of what’s going on. Nonetheless, once he does, he instantly begins counting the six-deck shoe in an almost pornographic sequence. This is a dream come true for any obsessive gambler who has been swallowed whole by the city of sin in the past.
2. Lost in America (1985)
Trifecta of talent: author, actor, and director Throughout his career, Albert Brooks has made comedies based on his witty, succinct wit (Defending Your Life, Modern Romance, Mother). Brooks and his wife, played by Julie Hagerty, are married yuppies (does anyone use the term “yuppie” anymore?), so they quit their jobs in Los Angeles to travel the country in their new Winnebago. When they arrive in Las Vegas, he sees his wife, crazy-eyed, at a roulette table. Unfortunately, they only make it that far. Despite losing their whole nest money, the pit boss tells him that she “hasn’t been on a lucky streak.” Just like that, she’s down to the last few chips and is racing to get to 22 before the game ends. Brooks briefly succumbs to the exhilaration of winning before yanking her away from the table and pleading with the casino for a reimbursement of their stake. A Hollywood scene, maybe, but one that has probably occurred more often than most people are aware of in the real world.
3. The Hustler (1961) & The Color of Money (1986)
“Fast” Eddie Felson appears in two films, over thirty years apart, starring Paul Newman. It’s a world of smoky pool rooms and thumb-breaking heavies for Eddie and Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in The Hustler. Even though Eddie enjoys gambling, he isn’t as addicted to winning as Rounders’ Mike McDermott. He defeats Fats so thoroughly that he is asked to quit the game. Fats finally gives in and admits, “I’m quitting,” Eddie. “I’m not going to be able to defeat you.” This assumption is based on Eddie’s departure from the pool hall. Years later, though, Eddie encounters Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), an up-and-coming pool player who wields a sword-like cue stick to stab at his opponents. They eventually meet in Atlantic City (and subsequently in a private match), suggesting that an addicted individual will never be able to genuinely free themselves from their habits. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since your last encounter with addiction, it will always be waiting to pounce on you.
4. Indecent Proposal (1993)
Sneaking into the theater to see this film, I thought it would be a lot more shocking and obscene than it actually was. “No Ordinary Love” and Jurassic Park’s trailer were the only things I recall from the movie.” Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson, and Robert Redford star in a drama with an equally bizarre cast, but it also has a plot that’s both straightforward and perplexing. As married high school sweethearts, Moore and Harrelson play a married couple who lose all their money playing roulette in Las Vegas, only to be engaged by Robert Redford’s millionaire character when Moore sends him on a winning run Demi Moore agrees to spend one night with the title character in exchange for $1 million. Assuming the couple has lost all their money gambling on roulette, this is a decent proposition. For much it’s worth, the movie serves as a cautionary tale about the perils of putting your heart at risk in the same way you do your money.
5. Rounders (1998)
When I worked as a projectionist at a movie theater, we had this film for a week. Two, at the most. I had already seen it three times before it was released on video. In one point, I became as fixated on it as Matt Damon’s character, Mike McDermott, is on success at poker in the movie. While the film may be argued to be more about skill than gambling, there is a strong thread of addiction running through it all. “Few players recall enormous pots they have won, weird as it seems, but every player can remember with astonishing accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career,” says McDermott, describing how he feels when he enters an underground poker hall. In this scenario, John Malkovich’s Teddy KGB gets gutted by Malkovich’s Teddy KGB and the chips are carried into the center. As McDermott’s face bleeds, Rounders presents a savage reminder that addiction may creep up on you at the most inopportune times.
6. The Cooler (2003)
As a result of Bernie Lootz’s actions, others will suffer As it turns out, he’s born with a bad streak. “Coolers,” as they are known in the gambling community, are said to exist in the real world. On screen, William H. Macy’s portrayal of Bernie is as dejected as his squalid living quarters. When it comes to his limp and stooped posture, you’ll be able to tell. Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) is Bernie’s casino manager, and as such, Bernie is constantly confronted with the same temptations that formerly drew him into gambling. Basically, it’s like a bartender who’s addicted to alcohol. It is at the end of the film that Bernie has a complete change of heart and manages to get his life back on track by taking a dive back into the abyss of his addiction (and debt).
7. Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Until Nicolas Cage’s post-Katrina remake, this Harvey Keitel picture was widely regarded as one of cinema’s most unredeemable protagonists. He’s a New York City cop who also happens to be an alcoholic, drug addict, and compulsive gambler. Unnamed lieutenant of Keitel is a train wreck in slow motion, teetering on the edge of collapse. In no way is he portrayed as a hero or an antihero in the movie; just the contrary. Because of his vices, he’s virtually utterly devoid of any semblance of humanity. He’s nothing more than a husk, stumbling through an alleyway like a garbage bag. This moment, on the other hand, reveals just how out of control his gambling has gotten him. In the middle of the day, he drinks and takes drugs while listening to a baseball game on the radio while driving through the Bronx. Shoots a hole in the dashboard with his revolver as soon as he learns how much money he has lost because of the game. What may have been funny in any other film is now a somber reminder of his short-lived existence in this one.
8. The Gambler (1974)
This selection of a gambling addiction film is perhaps a tad too direct, but a collection of such films would be incomplete without it. The story of Axel Freed (James Caan, in an award-winning performance) is based on James Toback’s own experiences as a Harvard-educated professor in New York City who develops a gambling addiction and sees his meticulously regulated and staid life go apart. Despite the fact that the movie’s premise can be summed up in its movie poster (“For $10,000, they shatter your arms. They’ll break your legs for $20,000 if you pay. It’s not as bad as “Axel Freed owes $44,000,” as he claims; in fact, the situation is far worse. Early in the film, Freed acquires $44,000, which he rapidly spends on basketball gambling in Las Vegas. It’s heartbreaking enough that he loses his money, but the main horrors of the story are his family members’ embarrassment, disgust, and sorrow at what he’s become.
9. Owning Mahowny (2003)
In Owning Mahowny, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a bank manager who gains access to more money as he rises through the ranks. When Dan Mahowny, Hoffman’s character, begins to visit Atlantic City on a regular basis, no one realizes that he is also a gambler. Interestingly, the play is based on the true incident of Brian Molony, a bank robber who stole more than $10 million in 18 months from the institutions where he worked. As Mahowny rolls into Atlantic City, he manages to win millions under the careful eye of the casino management in this bravura sequence of events (a dapper John Hurt). You can feel the walls closing in on Mahowny as the police arrive, yet he refuses to stop playing. This is a slasher movie-worthy moment.
10. The Twilight Zone (“The Fever”)
In my mind, the stark black-and-white color scheme of Rod Serling’s anthology series has always contributed to its creepiness. Most of the episodes still hold up to my frightened memories to this day. Thanks to “The Dummy,” I’m now terrified of ventriloquist performances. In 1960’s “The Fever,” the show follows a married couple who win a free trip to a hotel in Las Vegas. Serling foretells in the opening narration that “one of them will succumb to an illness worse than any virus can produce.” It is commonly known as “The Fever” because of its ineffectiveness and potential for death. When the husband plays a particular slot machine, he quickly spirals into crazy. In his mind, the one-armed bandit is still alive and refuses to pay up, and he feels it is haunting him. In the end, he succumbs to the ravages of gambling addiction, as the slot machine pursues him down a hotel hallway to his death. Yes, it’s a simple allegory, but the things it reveals about addiction are quite terrible.