California Split

California Split, which takes its name from a variant of draw poker in which the pot is divided, or split, between the high hand and the low hand, is a comedy drama directed by Robert Altman. Released in 1974, California Split turns the spotlight on the west coast gambling scene of the day, as seen through the eyes of two compulsive gamblers. Unsurprisingly, the two main protagonists, Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) and Bill Denny (George Segal) meet at the California Club, a Los Angeles poker parlour, where their friendship is cemented by being jointly mugged in the parking lot by a disgruntled opponent.

Of the ‘two bet-on-anything guys’, Denny is married, but separated from his wife, while Waters rooms, rent-free, with two prostitutes, Barbara Miller (Ann Prentis) and Susan Peters (Gwen Welles). Both men acknowledge that they have a gambling problem, at least up to a point, but nonetheless embark on a gambling streak, which lasts for several weeks and includes cards, horses, basketball and boxing, for increasing large stakes.

Ultimately, Denny is forced to sell all his possessions, including his car, to fund a trip to Reno, Nevada, by bus, to play high-stakes poker. The elusive winning streak does finally materialise, with Denny winning at poker – against none other than Thomas Austin Preston, Jr., a.k.a. ‘Amarillo Slim’ (who played himself) – blackjack, roulette and craps. Altogether, Denny amasses a total of $82,000, which he splits evenly with Waters, who is naturally ecstatic. Nevertheless, Denny confesses, ‘Charlie, there was no special feeling in it’, and the film ends on a downbeat note, with the two ‘heroes’ going their separate ways. According to Joe Pollock of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, ‘The conclusion falls a bit flat, but getting there is much more than half the fun.’

Croupier

Croupier is a 1998 British crime drama directed by Mike Hodges. The film is a fine example of the neo-noir style and stars Clive Owen as a suitably cynical hero, or anti-hero, Jack Manfred. Manfred is an aspiring, but as yet unpublished, writer, who takes a job at a second-rate London casino by way of inspiration for his novel ‘I, Croupier’.

The use of internal monologue is particularly effective in this instance, with Manfred narrating his own story as if he was putting pen to paper. In so doing, he also reveals his cold, calculating nature and the disdain he holds for the gamblers he encounters in his professional life. Indeed, Manfred insists, ‘I do not gamble’, but, while that statement may be true as far as casino games are concerned, his personal life is less disciplined.

Manfred has a girlfriend, Marion Nell (Gina McKee), who takes a dim view of his new ‘career’. He subsequently becomes involved with Bella (Kate Hardie), a dealer, and Jani de Villiers (Alex Kingston), a mysterious, but nonetheless glamorous, gambler who, like him, hails from South Africa. Heavily indebted to her creditors, de Villiers entices Manfred to become the ‘inside man’ in a plan to defraud the casino, with the promise of £10,000 up front and more to follow.

The scheme fails, but Manfred is free from suspicion, at least from everyone bar Marion, who threatens to reveal his involvement if he continues to work at the casino. Manfred returns to writing, finishing his novel after Marion has been killed, apparently knocked down by a car. Published anonymously, ‘I, Croupier’ becomes a best-seller, earning Manfred a fortune. In a final twist, Manfred is contacted by de Villiers, who is back in South Africa, where she is soon to marry his father, Jack Snr..

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, released in 1988, is a remake of the 1964 comedy ‘Bedtime Story’, with Michael Caine and Steve Martin replacing David Niven and Marlon Brando in the leading roles. Set on the French Riviera, in the elegant, but fictitious, coastal resort of ‘Beaumont-sur-Mer’ – which was actually Beaulieu-sur-Mer, east of Nice – the film tells the tale of two competing con artists. Director Frank Oz had previously directed three films, including ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’, all of which featured puppets.

Sophisticated, charismatic and smooth-talking Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) has been plying his trade to good effect, until his livelihood is threatened by a boorish rival, in the form of Freddy Benson (Martin). Jamieson is concerned that Benson may, indeed, be an infamous con artist known as ‘The Jackal’, whom he has read about in a newspaper article.

In an effort to rid himself of Benson, Jamieson issues him a challenge, whereby the first of them to swindle a chosen ‘mark’ out of £50,000 can remain in the locale, while the other must leave immediately. The mark in question is Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly), a young, apparently wealthy, American heiress.

Once the ‘con is on’, Benson poses as wheelchair-bound veteran needing £50,000 worth of psychiatric treatment, while Jamieson, wise to the scheme, poses as renowned psychiatrist Emil Schaffhausen, who offers such treatment. Jamieson subsequently discovers that Colgate is not an heiress at all, but simply a competition winner and offers to cancel the bet. However, Colgate later tells him that Benson has stolen the £50,000 she has raised and, disgusted, Jamieson reimburses her. Jamieson sends Colgate away, but Benson reveals that she lied about the money, at which point they realise that she is, in fact, The Jackal, and has conned them out of £100,000.

Maverick

Based on the television series of the same name, starring James Garner in the title role, Maverick is a Western comedy directed by Richard Donner and distributed by Warner Bros. in 1994. Garner, who was in his mid-sixties, once again featured, but as the antagonistic Marshal Zane Cooper. Mel Gibson stars as Bret Maverick, a gambler and con artist intent on raising the $3,000 he needs to enter a $25,000 five-card draw poker tournament aboard Lauren Belle, Queen of the Western Rivers.

On his arrival in the desert town of Crystal River, Maverick encounters fellow hopefuls Annabelle Bransford (Jodie Foster) and Angel James (Alfred Molina), whom he successfully cons out of the money he needs for his entry fee, making enemies of both of them. Nevertheless, Maverick, Bransford and Cooper team up for a series of comedic adventures, including a runaway stagecoach ride, until they encounter a common enemy in the form of the Commodore Duvall (James Coburn), the owner of the Lauren Belle and organiser of the poker tournament.

Maverick and Bransford do, indeed, make it to the tournament, where they are joined by James, with Cooper supposedly taking care of security arrangements. However, Cooper – who is subsequently revealed to be in league with Duvall, as is James – makes off with the $500,000 prize money rather than presenting it to Maverick. Maverick retrieves his winnings, only to be hunted down once again by Cooper, who reveals that, unbeknown to viewers, he is his father. As they congratulate themselves on their subtefugue, Bransford, who has already cottoned on to their real relationship, suddenly turns up at the bath house and robs them.

The films features several uncredited cameo appearances, including by Danny Glover, who starred opposite Mel Gibson in the ‘Lethal Weapon’ series of films. In an early bank robbery scene, the pair exchange knowing glances, but no more.