Movie history is littered with memorable casino scenes. At times, the casino takes centre stage as the setting for the film – Casino, Hard Eight, Croupier. At other times, it might have a fleeting appearance but act as a driver in the overall plot – Casino Royale, The Godfather, Rain Man. But regardless if it is the setting for the majority of your film, or only used for a few minutes, the casino can act as a perfect driver for your story and as a means to build tension that impacts your audience.
To explain what we mean, it’s best to pose the question: Why do filmmakers often choose to shoot casino scenes in the first place? Of course, that’s not a question with a single answer. Francis Ford Coppola needed Moe Green’s casino in The Godfather for very different reasons to Terry Gilliam in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In turn, Barry Levinson needed it in Rain Man for purposes different to Todd Phillips in The Hangover, even if the blackjack scene in the latter were inspired by the former.
But if we look at the casino as a means to create tension, there is no better example than the poker game in Casino Royale. The scene lasts several minutes. And while there are some outrageous moments – Bond (Daniel Craig) gets poisoned, leaves the game and returns after receiving the antidote – it’s nail-biting drama.
Casinos put characters under pressure
Now, you aren’t going to base the plot of a Bond film solely on the outcome of a poker game, and Casino Royale doesn’t do that even if millions of dollars were on the line. But the poker scene acts to put the main characters, both hero and villain, under pressure. That’s where the tension comes in, especially as we see the first cracks in the unflappable villain, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Dramatic tension is also achieved by the fact that the leads, Craig and Mikkelsen, speak very little for several minutes. They engage in ‘eye acting’ and let the risk of the game build tension over their silence.
It’s common knowledge that casinos aren’t really like what is portrayed on the silver screen, and one area where that is certainly true is with the sense of menace hanging in the air, particularly in the case of unscrupulous casino bosses. This can be seen in various movies where casinos are linked to gangster activities, such as Ocean’s 11 or The Cooler. In reality, casino owners like Donald Trump and Sheldon Adelson aren’t watching you play blackjack in a room full of security guards.
But in the movies, it’s an easy method to insert tension with the portrayal of the ever-watchful Sauronesque casino owner; a person for whom violence might be the answer if you happen to win too much money. It doesn’t happen in the real world, but it puts the characters in a state of jeopardy in the eyes of the audience. Rain Man, for instance, gave rise to the perception that card counting is illegal (it’s not, and it’s not that difficult), and you would somehow be in trouble if you are too successful. Countless other films have run with the same idea.
Casinos are steeped in tradition
It’s often the case that casino harks back to old world ideals. Games like roulette and blackjack are steeped in tradition, but so too are the other props – the dress, the drinks. Even the fact that casinos often allow indoor smoking seems a throwback to a bygone era. Of course, much of modern casino gaming is now done online, and high rollers might be taking their chances on the Mega Moolah progressive slot (the world’s biggest jackpot game) online rather than hanging around the baccarat tables. But the movies do get it right at times in terms of portraying the casino as a place that does not have to abide by the rules of the modern world.
As a setting, the casino offers a chance for your characters to do something while interacting. If you look back at the opening casino scene in Dr No, where we were first introduced to the immortal line from Sean Connery, “Bond. James Bond.” This is the first-ever scene with Connery as James Bond, but we don’t see his face for just over a minute. We see his hands, and the back of his head; we also see Bond win a couple of rounds in the game, chemin-de-fer (an archaic version of baccarat). In that minute, the tension is also built by the character, Sylvia Trench (Eunice Grayson), who is losing in the game and increasingly unsettled by the man winning opposite her – Bond.
Those 60 seconds on screen tell you perfectly how the casino can be used as a prop for tension and character building. We don’t see Bond, but we can tell he is cool, calm and suave. On the contrary, Trench is subtly showing signs of annoyance and distress. Without them needing to say anything, we automatically know a lot about these characters and the direction they will be taking. The game has let the director (Terence Young) focus on something other than direct dialogue, but with enough hints for the audience to start building a narrative in their minds. It’s just one of many examples as to why the casino is a perfect backdrop for creating tension and developing characters in film.