Casinos have a lot in common with movie theaters: flashy interiors, no windows once you leave the entrance behind, an orientation away from the rest of the world, thus eliminating any distraction from the matter at hand. Both offer an escape from daily life, as well as the hope of a big payoff. Both also provide quite a show.
The Harvard Film Archive traditionally observes the end of summer with a mini-marathon of movies on a particular theme. Past subjects have included boxing, vampires, trains, heists, noirishness, Joan Crawford, and water (as in sailing on).
This year’s theme, as you may have guessed, is gambling. Consisting of six movies, the marathon starts at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 2, and continues through the night — what gambler ever abandons a hot streak? — until close to dawn on Sunday morning.
The marathon takes its name from one of those six films, “Any Number Can Win.” Ah, but that also means any number can lose. Just ask the crooks played by Jean Gabin and Alain Delon in that 1964 French film. Most of the movie takes place in Cannes — talk about a gambling/film connection — as does part of the other French film in the marathon, Jacques Demy’s masterful “Bay of Angels” (1963).
The marathon kicks off with “Johnny O’Clock” (1947). It’s the directorial debut of Robert Rossen, who also wrote the script. Rossen would direct “Body and Soul,” “All the King’s Men,” and “The Hustler” (a different kind of gambling picture). Rossen very much knew what he was doing, and “Johnny” is highly enjoyable.
Dick Powell plays the title character, the smooth and slick front man for a gambling kingpin. This is from Powell’s tough-guy period. The idea of Powell playing tough guys makes about as much sense as would Lady Gaga playing nuns. But what can you do? Fortunately, Thomas Gomez plays the gambling kingpin, Lee J. Cobb plays a police detective (how that man could growl), and Evelyn Keyes plays the lady who has Johnny’s number.
“You’re cagy,” she tells him. “Does that go with being a gambler?”
“Oh, I’m not a gambler. A gambler’s a guy who takes a chance.”
Raised eyebrows. “You never do?”
“Took a few. Never take a chance you don’t know.”
“What do you know?”
“You always lose. I learned that when I was a kid.”
Worth noting: The cinematographer is the great Burnett Guffey. He’d later win Oscars for “From Here to Eternity” and “Bonnie and Clyde.”
In “Any Number,” Charles (Gabin) and Francis (Delon) might have benefited from Johnny’s wisdom. Henri Verneuil’s film isn’t really a gambling movie. It’s a heist picture. Who doesn’t like heist pictures? It qualifies for marathon inclusion because the heisting takes place at a swanky casino.
Gabin, one of the all-time stars, did not age well — and he was only 60 when “Any Number” came out — but his heavy, tired appearance makes his scowl all the more potent. Conversely, Delon is impossibly handsome. Michel Magne’s crime-jazz score is a guilty pleasure, going heavy on the brass and bongos and electric guitar. While it wouldn’t be nice to say that “Any Number” would be a far better movie had Jean-Pierre Melville directed it, that is in fact the case.
Worth noting: From certain angles, Gabin bears a rather startling resemblance to Kenneth Branagh.
“Pale Flower” (1964) came out the same year as “Any Number.” A yakuza named Muraki (Ryō Ikebe) has just finished three years in stir. “He’s a gutsy guy,” the leader of his gang says. “Knows how to get things done.” Once Muraki encounters a mysterious female gambler, Saeko (Mariko Kaga), all bets are off.
The most unexpected thing about Masahiro Shinoda’s film is its surprisingly varied presentation of Tokyo life: not just the underworld, but a train station, race track, bowling alley, dentist’s office, even a maternity ward. Stylistically, the movie is as uneasily balanced as Muraki and Saeko. It’s both up to the minute (zooms, overhead shuts, abrupt editing, hand-held camera, even a dream sequence) and retro (wipes, process shots). Yet the imbalance, in content and form both, helps keep things interesting.
Speaking of retro, Demy begins “Bay of Angels” with an iris shot of Jeanne Moreau walking along the Croisette in Cannes. The lens then widens, the camera speeds away in one of the most glorious tracking shots in movie history, and Michel Legrand’s equally glorious rolling piano theme comes on the soundtrack. It’s the musical equivalent of a turning roulette wheel. We’ll see a lot of those over the next 84 minutes.
That shot unleashes an energy, exhilaration, and sense of liberation rare in any film. Even rarer is a performance as thrilling as Moreau’s. For Jackie, her character, gambling is a kind of religion. She would seem preposterous in the pages of a novel. As personified on the screen by Moreau, she’s absolutely compelling. How could Claude Mann’s neophyte gambler, Jean, not be as transfixed by her as we are?
Worth noting: The brand of cigarettes Jackie smokes — boy, do people in all these movies smoke a lot — isn’t Gauloises or Gitanes. It’s, yes, Lucky Strikes.
Now here’s high praise: Clive Owen’s stare in “Croupier” (1998) is even better than Gabin’s scowl in “Any Number.” Owen plays Jack, an aspiring writer who supports himself in the title job. The two best things in a movie that’s too mannered for its own good are the relentless restraint of Owen’s performance and how Mike Hodges’s film provides such an expert tutorial on gaming as seen from the other side of the table.
Worth noting: During the first few scenes, Owen is a peroxide blond. An homage to the similar hair coloration of Moreau’s Jackie?
Charlie (Elliott Gould) is a professional gambler. Bill (George Segal) is a magazine writer who’s nearly as addicted to chance as Charlie is. They’re the agreeably anti-heroic heroes of Robert Altman’s “California Split” (1974). Their double dating with Saeko and Jackie would make for a high-stakes evening.
Even by Altman standards, “Split” is shaggy and loose. Granted, two characters take a beating — the physical kind — and the sexual politics are dubious, at best (hey, it’s the ‘70s; hey, it’s Altman). But overall this may be the director’s sunniest movie, and it’s very entertaining.
But — and it’s a big one — there’s an emotional dishonesty to the enterprise. “Split” is extremely good at capturing the high that gambling can induce. It scants on the desperation and misery. Johnny O’Clock knew what he was doing in refusing to gamble. Jack, in “Croupier,” is the same way. Make no mistake, Charlie and Bill are addicts, but the addiction is mostly played for laughs and charm. If “Split” is Altman’s most appealing movie that may be because none of the others has as much sugar-coating.
Worth noting: A very young and very bow-tied Jeff Goldblum can be briefly glimpsed as Bill’s boss.
ANY NUMBER CAN WIN: All-Night Movie Marathon
At Harvard Film Archive, 6 p.m., Sept. 2, $15. 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, harvardfilmarchive.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.