In representing fun, excitement, risk, and hedonism, casinos embody all the things that we find most compelling in life. A psychologically intense game of high-stakes poker or a risky bet that could make or break someone’s fortunes are both engaging tropes that provide plenty of scope for some of the best stories.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that casinos feature so heavily in films and on television, in every genre from romantic comedies to gritty tales of criminal behavior. In some films the casino represents excitement and freedom, whereas others show the inner workings of the games, focussing on the logic and maths that give the house its edge.
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For those that have a mental image of casinos as opulent places where every detail oozes glamour, this is the kind of casino lifestyle that is represented in the Bond classic Casino Royale. Every patron is decked out in jewels the size of tennis balls with more gold than most people will see in a lifetime, and the villain is a well-dressed man who’s about to lose a fortune to the superior gaming skills of 007.
As the first of Ian Fleming’s novels, Casino Royale really set the tone for James Bond’s (played by Daniel Craig) icy cool sophistication and ability to blend seamlessly into high society. In the novel, he takes on Le Chiffre in an excruciatingly tense game of baccarat, but when the film was made this was changed to a game of poker in the belief that more people would be familiar with the rules.
As well as featuring in the title, the goal of Bond’s mission in this film is to bankrupt Le Chiffre by beating him at casino games. The excitement of each game is heightened, not just by the vast sums of cash involved, but also by the idea that Bond’s cover could be blown at any moment, putting the mission and the general public in jeopardy several times throughout the film.
Of course, no list of casino films would be complete without this classic from Martin Scorsese. Inspired by real individuals who were among the most notorious casino owners on the Las Vegas casino scene, the film focuses on their skirmishes with one another and the authorities.
The film stars Robert de Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, and James Woods, and it won numerous awards and accolades with plenty more nominations for both cast and crew.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
This darkly funny film takes the opposite approach to portraying a casino, using it as a backdrop for some of the most off-the-wall action ever to be committed to film. Based on the book of the same name by notorious author Hunter S Thompson, the film is an opportunity to bring some of the more luridly descriptive prose to life.
Even the basic premise of the plot is a head-spinner – a journalist and his lawyer, both of whom have some significant issues from the outset, take psychedelic drugs as they travel to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race. Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, the film wasn’t hugely well received when it first came out, but it has since gone on to earn an international reputation and is now something of a cult classic.
For those that appreciate the cold hard maths behind casino games, 21 is a film that shows what can happen if you get too caught up in the numbers. It is based on the true story of an MIT professor who recruits a team of bright young students to become a team of card-counting casino gamers that can beat the odds and win large sums of cash.
The film follows the fortunes of a group of students who all learn how to apply mathematical principles and memory tricks to help them beat the blackjack tables and win millions from casinos all over Las Vegas. While the film also follows the fictionalized personal lives of the students involved, there is plenty of interesting maths to appeal to fans of odds and statistics.
Such a popular film that it has been made in various different formats spanning several decades, this film combines the effortless skill of James Bond with the calculating mischief of the MIT card counters to make a clever and funny heist movie. The characters all have their own area of expertise, whether that’s cracking safes or fitting into tight spaces, and they come together to pull off a spectacularly well-planned and researched robbery.
The comedy element offers some light relief from the series of tense encounters that allow the team access to the casino vault, and the characters all have their own appeal, despite their criminal tendencies.