Cards and The Movies

For a “sleight” change of pace (that missing spelling was intentional :-)) I thought it would be fun to pay a tribute to the classic films of hollywood which featured playing cards and gambling in one context or another.

I was about 7 years old when I saw the classic film “The Cincinnati Kid” directed by Norman Jewison.  Steve Mcqueen played a young hot shot poker player.  Edward G Robinson played the role of Lancey Howard, “The Man” who was considered to be the best poker player of them all.

This was the first film I saw which featured playing cards and it was captivating.  The tension of the final showdown between Eric, Mcqueen’s character and “The Man” Lancy Howard ranks as a cinematic masterpiece of tension and high drama, not bad for a card game.

Let’s relive that dramatic moment where no matter how well you play the game sometimes, “lady luck” may not favor you or the cards you hold.

The supporting cast of Karl Malden as “Shooter”, Tuesday Wild as “Christian” and the wonderful Joan Blondell as “Lady Fingers” added a wonderful texture of characters who had a point to prove no matter what the cost.  Speaking of “Lady Fingers”, Joan Blondell was coached by master magician Jay Ose.  Check out the video below for some excellent footage of Jay Ose and Joan Blondell.

This was and still is a wonderful story, classic films never go out of date.

The next film that I saw which featured playing cards, although not to a huge degree was “The Gun Fight at The O.K. Coral”. The expert at the card table this time was Kirk Douglas playing the role of poker player Doc Holiday.  There is one scene in the film where all we see is Doc Holiday ribbon spreading a deck of card with a “Domino Turnover”.  In the video footage below watch very closely because you will see it for about two seconds in the trailer to the movie.  This little piece of footage is quite significant because my friend Darwin Ortiz told me that when he first saw this film, he thought the ribbon spread was the most magical thing he had seen with cards.

We now move onto one of the most iconic films ever made featuring playing cards, “The Sting”.  I think it is fair to say that many magicians have seen this film and were been inspired by the content and context of this wonderful story.

Paul Newman and Robert Redford star in this tale of two grifters in 1930s Chicago out to exact revenge for the death of their friend Luther.  Robert Shaw brilliant portrayal of mob boss “Doyle Lonnegan” added a brilliant antagonist to the plot.  The success of this film is in how it pulls of a “sting” right before your eyes.  As an audience member, you experience being taken in for a con on several occasion.

For us magicians and card experts, there is the moment before the card game when Paul Newman is warming up with the cards.  This particular scene featured the hands of John Scarne executing some advanced sleight of hand techniques.  The classic moment is the poker showdown between Paul Newman’s character and Robert Shaw’s.

Here is are some wonderful scenes to enjoy.

The Showdown

This film changed my life and I became obsessed with cards and sleight of hand  ever since.

Playing cards have featured very strongly in films in the last few years.  I saw a film staring Matt Damon and Edward Norton.  The film was called “Rounders” and tells the story of a young man (Damon) who dreams of playing in “The World Series”.  He runs into problems when he loses all his college tuition money playing Texas Hold em’.  His friend (Norton), is a cardshark and is recently released from prison and needs to make some “easy money”.  So its straight back to the card table for some serious action.  This is a very good film and I enjoyed the plot a great deal.  Matt Damon is a great actor and did a excellent job trying to control his desire to play cards and complete his education.  In the end, he followed his passion towards “The World Series”.

The video below is the great showdown with Matt Damon facing off John Malkovich‘s “KGB”.

Final Hand of Rounders

I want to pay tribute to Ian Flemming’s “Casino Royal”; Daniel Craig’s Bond was fantastic.  This story had everything, beautiful woman, great action sequences, love, betrayal and of course, gambling.  The original story from the book featured Bond playing Baccarat against La Chiffre. In this new interpretation, the game is no limits “Hold em” and it is fantastic.  Early in the film Bond wins a private game of “Hold em” and a 1964 vintage classic Aston Martin against an arrogant opponent Alex Dimitros.

The final hand against La Chiffre is a classic.

Let’s end this post with a wonderful piece of footage from the expert card work of Ricky Jay. This footage comes from a film called “The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky”.


Cards, gambling and magic have featured very strongly in films over the last sixty years.  In some cases, gambling was integral to the plot, in others, it was an aside but added a nice texture to the proceedings.  I hope this tradition continues because there is a powerful and romantic connection between the gambler, the cardshark, the magician and films.  I hope you enjoyed this short article, tomorrow, I will begin my evaluation on one of the finest books on close-up magic ever written, “The Classic Magic of Larry Jennings”.

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  1. The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky (1995) – Movie…

    Note 6.5/10. The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky is a Western TV Movie of 1995 made in USA. Director: John Kent HarrisonCast: Sam Elliott, Jerry O’Connell, Ricky Jay, Molly Parker, Don S. Davis, Robert Wisden, Michael Tayles, Tom Butler, Jay Br…

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