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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ante Up (originally published 1/05)

At first glance, poker wouldn't seem to be an obvious subject matter for a movie. After all, it's just a group of guys sitting around a table pushing cards and chips back and forth. How can there be an interesting movie in a game that contains so little movement?

Ah, but what it lacks in movement it makes up for in drama. Those chips represent money, sometimes quite a lot of it, that has been placed at risk by the players. Furthermore, the players recognize that, although there is skill involved, ultimately they have placed their fortune at the mercy of the luck of the draw. Add to this the compulsive nature of gamblers, leading some players to risk money they don't have on bets they can't cover, and you have the makings of nail-biting drama. That's why it's not so surpising that the recent success of televised poker games has gone so far as to inspire a dramatic series on ESPN called "Tilt." If you enjoy watching poker on TV you may want to look for these movies about cardsharps on home video.

"The Lady Eve" (1941). Writer/director Preston Sturges created plum roles for Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck as a father and daughter team of cardsharps in this classic comedy. "Colonel" Harrington is a distinguished looking con artist, whose motto is "let us be crooked but never common." His daughter Jean is a willing and skilled accomplice. Together they fleece wealthy pigeons in rigged card games. One of their hunting grounds is a luxury ocean liner, which is where they meet Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), whose family fortune was built on the sales of Pike's Pale Ale. Charles is no Ale executive, however. Instead, he has chosen scholarly pursuits, specializing in the study of snakes. Ironically, he is totally unable to recognize the human snakes who manage to lure him into a fateful card game. Charles fancies himself quite a card player, which makes him a perfect target for Jean and the "Colonel." The complication occurs when Jean unexpectedly finds herself falling for Charles.

"The Cincinnati Kid" (1965). Walter Tevis's novel "The Hustler," about a young pool shark who takes on the champ before he's ready, had been made into a successful and critically acclaimed film by Robert Rossen in 1961. "The Cincinnati Kid" is a similar story using poker as the game of choice. Steve McQueen plays the title role, a hot young poker player who dominates the game in the New Orleans area. On the national level, Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson) is the man to beat, so when Howard comes to town for a private game with a New Orleans high roller a game with The Kid is also arranged. Director Norman Jewison succeeds in making the sedate game as suspenseful in its own way as a car chase. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"A Big Hand For The Little Lady" (1966). The setting is the Laredo territory in 1896. Once a year, in the back room of the local saloon, five of the territory's wealthiest high rollers gather for some serious poker. This year, one has missed his daugher's wedding to be there, while another, an attorney, has walked out on a client who is on trial for his life. The game is observed by a farmer named Meredith (Henry Fonda), who is waiting for his wife Mary (Joanne Woodward) to join him. Meredith has sworn off gambling at Mary's urging, but watching this high stakes card game tempts him beyond his capacity to resist. The next thing he knows he has put up his family's homestead money as an ante to get him into the game. By the time Mary returns and catches him at it, he's $500 in the hole. Overcome by the stress of losing the family's savings and by remorse at having let Mary down, Meredith suffers an apparent heart attack. In desperation, he persuades Mary to play out his hand for him, despite her ignorance of the game. Mary's unorthodox approach to playing out the hand leads to a clever twist ending.

Given that there's only so much that can happen in a card game, you might imagine that the current vogue for televised poker will burn itself out relatively quickly. Maybe so, but I wouldn't bet on it.

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