Of all the forms of magic, I find sleight of hand to be the most entertaining and elegant. Cris Angel performs some very elaborate and mind-boggling illusions as does David Blaine, but I can’t help thinking that many of the big visual stunts – walking on water, levitating, slamming someone’s cell phone inside a beer bottle, separating a woman into two halves – come off with the participation of shills. Nothing against the illusion, but involving actors who feign awe at the magic while playing an intimate role in its execution necessarily diminishes the experience.
That is never a concern with real sleight of hand. Manipulation of ordinary objects such as playing cards, coins and balls in the close proximity of uninvolved onlookers is a true art form that demands the highest levels of dexterity and confidence, an ability to deceive, and gift for narrative. And a lot of practice. I mean a lot. To get a sense of the art form and its history, check out the revealing if slightly uneven documentary, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. Ricky Jay is probably the foremost living practitioner of sleight of hand, and his demonstrations and history-telling in the movie are truly fascinating.
I first came across a long-haired Ricky Jay in the late 1970s on HBO specials when a good deal of his repertoire involved throwing cards. I lost track of him until he showed up as a poker-playing con-man in David Mamet’s 1987 psychological thriller “House of Games.” In addition to being a marvel with card manipulation, Ricky – now paunchier and less-hirsuit – showed he was also a passable actor (at least under the direction of Mamet and the staccato dialog of his tight screenplay.) One of my favorite scenes in “House of Games” is when the gang of con-men baits a trap in the form of a high-stakes poker game for uptight female psychiatrist Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse). After a long night of poker, the action comes to a showdown between a hard-boiled Ricky Jay and a well-dressed bookie named Mike (Joe Mantegna).
Margaret doesn’t realize that Mike and Ricky are on the same team, so when Ricky’s club flush beats Mike’s trip aces, she finds herself in a pickle of the gang’s design. But nothing is as it seems – watch the movie to find out what happens next.
Anyway, card games have been used often in the movies as an entertaining device to establish the essence of the characters – are they venal, manipulative, foolish, idealistic, vengeful, greedy, desperate? – as well as the relationships between characters. High-stakes confrontations across the felt? A natural for the movies.
Here are a few of those that left a memory for me:
Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) is just aching to take down evil gangster Doyle Lonegan – or was it Liniman? – in a brace game of five card draw. The whole plot of the movie depends on it. And Gondorff delivers. After running roughshod all night over the hifalutin gamblers on the 20th Century Limited out of New York City, Gondorff finds himself in a final showdown with Lonegan (Robert Shaw) for maximum stakes. Just the situation he’s been waiting for; but Lonegan has stacked the deck against him. No matter. Gondorff anticipates Lonegan’s parry and somehow turns four threes into four jacks. The look of incredulity and then panic on the face of Lonegan’s henchman – the guy who stacked the deck – is marvelous.
Honeymoon in Vegas
This rather contrived and moronic movie centers around a Dickhead (Nicolas Cage) who gets in over his head in a high-stakes poker game with a smarmy wax-museum piece called Tommy Korman (James Caan). Anyone in the audience see that Dickhead (Ok – Jack Singer) is being conned – even as he sits on a straight flush. Tommy is betting hard into Jack’s “unbeatable” hand, but Jack lacks money to call. So he offers an unusual wager: a weekend with his new wife Betsy (Sarah Jessica Parker) and all her deliciousness. Tommy accepts. Jack lays downs a straight flush to the jack. And (non)surprise – Tommy lays one down straight to the queen. Later on, back at the hotel room, Jack and his wife have a difficult conversation. “Do you know what a straight flush is? It’s like… unbeatable.” says Jackie boy. Betsy remarks, “‘Like unbeatable’ is not unbeatable.”
Cool Hand Luke
After severing a bunch parking meters, a drunken Luke is expeditiously incarcerated for vandalism in a southern-fried prison where he and his fellow convicts are assembled regularly into a chain-gang that whacks weeds and slings gravel along dusty roads amid the sopping-wet humidity of the Mississippi afternoons. As the log-line for the movie aptly says, “A man refuses to conform to life in a rural prison.” Whether it involves eating 50 hard-boiled eggs, tricking an escape, or playing poker – Luke is always cool. In a game of five card stud where a dollar is a huge bet, Luke continually kicks a buck against another con who has a pair of sevens showing. Although Luke has nothing more than a king on the table, he successfully bluffs out a guy with an ace, and after some back and forth, he bluffs out the man with “the Savannahs.” Dragline, a lifer played by George Kennedy who won an Oscar for his portrayal, flips over Luke’s hand to reveal … nothing. As Luke says drolly, “Sometimes, nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”
This quirky movie boasts a cast of misfits and curious characters, the biggest being Mickey (Keith Carradine). He is introduced as a possible psychiatric patient who seems to have a host of credentials: poetry professor, professional photographer, spy, truck mechanic in East Germany. But are they real or just a figment of Mickey’s active imagination? He’s also quite the ladies’ man. He makes a move on saucy Pearl (Rae Dawn Chong) who helps him get into a high stakes poker game – where her jealous husband Zach happens to be among the players. Mickey raises big against Zach who consults his astrologer for advice on calling the bet. Upon glimpsing Zach’s hand the astrologer exclaims, “No! Not with the moon in Pluto.” Zach folds, Mickey rakes, and a relationship between the men is established.
The Cincinnati Kid (Steve McQueen) is a young poker savant who captures the attention and interest of an older card shark named Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson). There’s the expected machismo and philandering, and the ending is rather contrived (see the clip below). But my favorite scene is a poker game dealt by a brassy dame called Lady Fingers (60 year-old Joan Blondell). This is a high-stakes game yet as Lady Fingers deals, the audience can see the faces of the cards as they fly off the deck several inches above the table. Comical. Hard to imagine a pro like director Norman Jewison let that slide.
Like a one-trick pony, Joe Pesci clones his “Goodfellas” character to become Nicky Santoro in Martin Scorcese’s blockbuster “Casino.” The performance he gave in “Goodfellas” when he beat the shit out of a wise-ass Mafia made-man is revived in “Casino” in the famous pen-stabbing scene. Almost identical. That same sarcastic fury comes later in the movie when Nicky can’t catch a card at the blackjack table. The abuse he heaps upon the weary dealer who continues to give him face cards (aka. “paints”) is withering – and it’s especially hilarious when Nicky angrily throws a card at the dealer and it sticks to his shirt.
I read Ben Mezrich’s book, “Bringing Down the House,” the true story about a crew of MIT students under the tutelage of a math professor who implement a combination of meticulous card value assessment and costume chicanery to win big at Vegas blackjack. The movie based on “Bringing Down the House” – “21″ – bears virtually no resemblance to the story in the book. It’s a contrived mess that makes virtually no sense. Still, the allure of high-stakes card games helps keep the audience quasi-interested. The part I find most fascinating though is the egregious continuity error in the beginning of the film where Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) demonstrates the gist of counting cards. First some of the cards are face up. Then the same cards are face down. Then some go missing. Jesus. I guess that was a metaphor for the entire mess called “21.”