Thursday, August 09, 2012

Poker in the Movies

Shamus' Drive-InHad a chance recently to see Rio Bravo, the 1959 western starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan, and Angie Dickinson. I’d never seen it previously, and while it didn’t exactly bowl me over on an initial viewing, I could see why some like to list it as a favorite.

Just like with Tall in the Saddle (discussed here last week), I dialed up Rio Bravo primarily because I am looking for additional examples of poker in American film. I will be teaching my course again this fall, that American Studies class called “Poker in American Film and Culture,” where I often show clips of films in class. That’s one reason why I am looking for more poker scenes that connect with various topics we cover.

Another reason is I’ve also started to plan a book-length project about poker in American film, and so for that purpose have begun seeking and watching movies from a long list of titles I’ve never seen before.

Rio Bravo actually doesn’t feature poker much at all beyond games being incidentally played by those sitting around saloon tables. There is one subplot, however, involving Angie Dickinson’s character, named Feathers, who falls under suspicion for having cheated at poker when a deck is found to be missing three aces.

Aces up his sleeveIt turns out Feathers is innocent, as another player in her game was the one pilfering the cards. John Wayne’s character, the awesomely-named John T. Chance who is sheriff of the Texas border town, checks out the situation with the help of young Colorado (Ricky Nelson) who literally pulls the aces from the guilty party’s sleeve.

If I were to spend a little more time thinking about it, I could probably trace some sort of symbolic link between the three aces taken from the deck and the characters of Chance, Dude (Dean Martin), and Stumpy (Walter Brennan) -- the three who find themselves in a somewhat desperate spot of having to maintain order in Rio Bravo, a task made especially difficult after Chance arrests and jails Joe Burdette for murder and his brother gathers a gang of hired killers to bust him out.

Of course, calling those three “aces” would be an ironic reference. Though tough and ready for the challenge, Chance’s age marks him as vulnerable. Dude, Chance’s deputy, is a recovering alcoholic whose recovery is still not complete. And Chance’s other deputy Stumpy is even older than he is and walks with a limp.

Three acesThe trio end up getting considerable help against the Burdette clan from both Colorado and Feathers. I suppose Chance, Dude, and Colorado are probably better regarded as the “three aces” here, as Wayne, Martin, and Nelson were often highlighted in publicity photos and posters. By the way, Martin is kind of awesome as the troubled Dude, and the scene near the end when he and Nelson sing a couple of tunes is a genuine highlight.

It’s an enjoyable film with memorable characters and scenes, even if the pace slows to a crawl at times as it stretches out over two hours and 20 minutes. And it’s easy to see how the story represents both a rethinking of High Noon (1952) as well as an influence over later, similarly-structured films like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).

I’ve gathered a long list of films I’d like to write about, a list that already includes all of the usual titles often brought up in discussions of poker movies (good and bad). I have yet to decide whether I want to highlight a select group of movies (say, 50 or so) for lengthy treatment or go for a more comprehensive anthology that tries to cover the entire category of films in which poker appears and has some significance. As I get started and begin pulling the project together, I’ll probably keep sharing some thoughts here about films I watch (and rewatch) along the way.

Meanwhile, tell me this... what are some movies in which poker appears that you think should deserve attention in such a book? I’m especially interested to hear about films that aren’t necessarily known as “poker movies” per se but rather happen to have a poker scene or involve poker in an interesting way.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your friends at Ante Up Magazine did a podcast about the best poker scenes in a non-poker movie on 5/17/12.

The forum thread for that show.

8/09/2012 1:56 PM  
Blogger Big-O said...

If I may, I would suggest a movie which though doesn’t have a poker game per-say is a movie with a subtle poker reference that I doubt very much gets noticed as a poker movie.
It’s the Disney animated version of Robin Hood.
Shams, I leave it to you to find the reference.

8/09/2012 9:04 PM  

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