Josef von Sternberg wasn’t the easiest man to work with. Despite being credited with the whole idea of Thirties glamour, the Austrian director, who was nominated for two academy awards, developed notoriety for his on-set bullying for which he became broadly loathed.
On the set of his penultimate and tumultuous film Macao, von Sternberg was fired before completion for attempting to sack Robert Mitchum after he brought a picnic into work. The episode was the final straw for Howard Hughes – the owner of the studio – who became so exasperated by the film’s production that he had to get Mitchum to write bridging scenes as it previously made no sense dramatically.
But it was his picture 11 years earlier, The Shanghai Gesture, that helped solidify von Sternberg’s status as a staple of film-noir cinema at the time, and also pave the way for a genre of film that would become legendary – the Gambling Movie.
The Shanghai Gesture would end up becoming von Sternberg’s last major Hollywood production, and it was a masterpiece as the Austrian beautifully fused together the darkest characters of the underworld and the bourgeoise of China to create a glacial, delirious film about corruption and debauchery, all set upon the backdrop of an urbane Shanghai casino.
The film went on to be nominated for two Oscars and took in over $1 million at the box office – a pretty decent return for a film that came out less than three weeks after Pearl Harbor.
The Shanghai Gesture set a high, early benchmark for the genre which has not always been contested. All In from 2006 was one of those films that got nowhere near and was one of those films where you could tell after watching the first 30 seconds of the trailer that it’s going to be appalling.
It’s worth checking out for comedic value, though. The highlight has to be the poker player asking his daughter – intently, whilst seemingly on the verge of tears over the backdrop of a hilariously over-the-top, melodramatic soundtrack – the probability of a couple of hands, to which she quips back the answer with a repulsive smugness of someone you know you’re destined to hate for 90 minutes of your life you know you’re never going to get back. All In doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and has a lousy 3.7 rating on IMDB, which pretty much says it all.
On the flip side though, we had classics like The Sting, Casino and Rain Man which sit atop of the genre alongside The Shanghai Gesture with the same imperious superiority of someone who’s just won a fortune down the gambling house.
Watching The Sting after a film like All In really is a welcome relief, but in a way, it’s unnervingly similar because that overpowering and faux intensity that lingers like the smell of a hiker’s foot in the Saharan desert throughout All In, is applied to comedic perfection in The Sting. But it’s not just the humor that keeps you engrossed; it’s also the labyrinth of a plot that twists and turns like a jellyfish who’s misplaced his wallet as professional grifters Paul Newman and Robert Redford attempt to con a mob boss. The Sting was an absolute classic that made a killing at the box office and won seven academy awards at the Oscars.
Rain Man was a classic too. Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman together as an unlikely gallant pair who, using Hoffman’s savant syndrome to their card-counting advantage, attempt to take down a casino in the most soul-stirring and fulfilling fashion. It’s hard not to shed a tear, or at least feel some degree of heart-warming, as the improbable pair’s lives develop over the 133 minutes.
And Casino too, a Martin Scorsese classic which sits aside the likes of the Godfather, Goodfellas, and Scarface on top of the mob genre pedestal. Casino focuses on the Italian Mob running the day-to-day operations of the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas which, of course, descends into all kinds of gangster chaos for Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, and Joe Pecsi.
Casinos are dazzling places. They involve money; dapper gentleman, elegant ladies; incredible highs, devastating lows. They’re where dreams are made and lost in the same night, and where emotions balance on a knife-edge.
Even casino films that haven’t been critically lauded as Ocean’s Eleven, James Bond’s Casino Royale and The Hangover all have huge cult followings. There’s a kind of mystique that sparkles over casino and gambling movies. But it should come as no surprise, no shock.
Gambling has been part of human culture since as far back as 2,800 BC when the first six-sided die was found in eastern Iran as part of a backgammon-like set. The whole concept of betting and wagering is ingrained in the human soul.
We bet on the next Prime Minister, we bet on soaps, we bet on Eurovision, we bet on sports, we bet on roulette, baccarat, blackjack. We gamble with our mortgages, we gamble on slot machines, we gamble on stock markets, we gamble with loot boxes on FIFA, Call of Duty and PubG.
Producing films that tap into that part of the human psyche was always going to be successful whether it’s just the backdrop of a picture or the lynchpin of the script.
Von Sternberg was just the first to capitalize on a whole ecosphere of exhilaration, but we have a lot to thank him for. Picnic or no picnic.