If you’ve watched your fair share of mob or gangster films, you’ll know how the story goes down. Brutal violence and ruthlessness rub up alongside business acumen and cunning to create stories that on the big screen translate into an invariably action-packed watch. There’s usually guns, getaway cars, and a strange glamour to living the lifestyle of the mobsters and mob leaders these films depict. But there’s also one other common theme that seems to thread through gangster films of all types – gambling.
Gambling, and more specifically, casinos always seem to play a role – either the backdrop to a heist or crime, or a setting for characters to lay it all on the line. In some films, the mobsters are even behind running the casinos and in some instances online gambling casinos as seen in Runner Runner. Whatever the link, gangster films and gambling appear to go hand in hand.
But why is it that so many gangster films feature casinos and gambling?
Casinos of course have a long-history of associations with the mob. In the early 20th century, organised crime syndicates were behind many of the Las Vegas resorts, and indeed gambling resorts across the world. Organised criminals often used casinos as a front for money laundering, and as a venue for meeting with other mobsters, if the movies are to be believed. But there’s always been this natural association between gangsters and offline casino resorts and gambling dens that still sees the two go hand in hand.
Of course, the reality is a little different, and today, the bulk of these casino resorts are actually owned and operated by international corporations. Some of them are part of much larger casino groups, while others are managed on behalf of foreign investor-owners. Either way, they are decidedly more corporate, and a lot less casual than their depictions in the movies might suggest.
There’s also the money angle, and of course, organised crime and money are two other themes you’ll commonly see side by side on film. It’s this combination that makes casinos and other gambling venues the perfect backdrop for gangster film action, and with this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that so many gangster films feature these kinds of themes.
Casinos are also a versatile setting, both visually on screen, and in terms of the context they provide. For example, a casino can be used as the setting for gang violence, or for a big deal going down. They can be used in the film’s narrative as a base for the action, or the scene of the crime. But they can also equally be used as a venue for developing the film’s love interests, or for playing out particular scenes of high risk gambling to ramp up the action.
The casino is the perfect setting in this environment. Firstly, it’s a given for viewers, because so many of them are used to watching casinos and gambling in gangster films. But the fact that it is so adaptable as a setting makes it a versatile and effective choice for filmmakers. In other words, it’s a convenient place for much of a film’s action to take place – at least, if you want an exciting movie.
Gambling has a visceral power on-screen, and most people watching the action unfold can immediately relate to the thrills and spills of money, risk and the occasional big success. For building suspense, or creating tension, gambling games like roulette or blackjack give a particular flavour to the action, and often make for some of the most compelling scenes. While often expressed in sub-plots, or as just pure action scenes, relying on the casino as a backdrop provides filmmakers with that added X-factor, combining excitement and high risk with all the tension and glamour of the high roller.
So next time you sit down to watch a gangster film and you notice the casino scenes, you’ll no longer wonder why filmmakers rely so heavily on this same old idea. Far from being a cliche, there’s a perfect synergy between gangster films and casino scenes, and it’s likely one combination that will continue to talk hand in hand in TV and film adaptations of the genre.