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When Joan Boothe accompanies husband-reporter David to Las Vegas, she begins gambling to pass the time while he is doing a story. Encouraged by the casino manager, she gets hooked on gambling, to the point where she "borrows" David's expense money to pursue her addiction. This finally breaks up their marriage, but David continues trying to help her. Written by
Mike Rogers <MICHAELPEM@aol.com>
Barbara Stanwyck is surely one of the greatest actresses ever in motion pictures but THE LADY GAMBLES is one of her lesser works despite a sincere, empathic performance by the star. This movie seems to want to be the gambling version of THE LOST WEEKEND but it's more like the lost 100 minutes , the time the viewer wastes watching this picture. Even the charismatic Stanwyck can't prevent this heavy-handed drama from being a chore to watch.
Stanwyck stars as the wife of newspaper journalist Robert Preston. They are in Las Vegas while he covers a story. Stanwyck decides to try to do an article herself on the gambling scene but her somewhat indiscreet camera work catches the eye of casino manager Stephen McNally who decides to let her play with valueless chips so she can be at the tables for her research. Trouble is Stanwyck finds she likes the tables a little too much and when McNally decides to put a plug in the playing for nothing, she dives into Preston's expense account and loses it all in a night. McNally, clearly attracted to Stanwyck from first sight, gives her $50 to play with out of pity after she has even hawked her expensive Swiss camera and being the good player she is Stanwyck actually wins her money back. But the lure of the tables is too strong and she keeps going back. And back. And losing. Ultimately destroying her marriage, she eventually joins forces with McNally in some of his questionably legal activities and later hits earthier lows in pursuit of lady luck where one seedy guy after another tells her to "kiss 'em for me baby" as she rolls the dice.
The movie is told in flashback as Stanwyck is hospitalized having been beat up by gamblers when she is caught dealing in a back alley crap game with loaded dice. Estranged husband Preston rushes to her side and tells the doctor the whole sad story.
The usually dependable Preston is one of the weakest links in the film; his character is alternately a milquetoast and a control freak but is at all times presented as Stanwyck's prince charming. Preston's performance is no help either, his rather theatrical delivery seems inappropriate for this attempt at "slice of life" drama; worse, in an amazingly unwise decision he speaks to the doctor in anguished troubled tones and then his narration over the past scenes is spoken with enthusiasm and dramatic flair! Stephen McNally fares much better as the intimidating Vegas big shot, his scenes with Stanwyck have considerable bite and are the film's highlight.
The worst thing about the film is the jaw-dropping pop psychology that attempts to explain away Stanwyck's gambling. It's because of her possessive older sister Edith Barrett!!! With her mother dying during childbirth, Stanwyck was "raised" by older (eight years, although Barrett was actually just six months older than Stanwyck) sister who has never let Barbara forget the sacrifices in her personal life she has made for her. Hero Preston seems frankly as controlling but since he is her husband, presumably that's OK with the screenwriters. The sister-is-the-root theory is interesting considering (A) Preston is hostile to the sister and her relationship with Barbara long before the gambling starts, (B) the gambling doesn't even start until Stanwyck is clearly into her thirties and (C) the sister is no where around to cause anxiety when most of the gambling binges occur!! But then what can you expect of reason from a film where a doctor attempts reverse psychology, encouraging a patient on a building ledge to jump!!
Barbara Stanwyck is always worth watching, her progression from dabbler to desperate is quite credible but even her solid work here can't save a movie that plays like a 1940's version of a 1970's half-baked "social issue" TV movie. Two stars going in opposite directions are also in the cast: newcomer Tony Curtis has an early bit part as a bellhop and 30's leading man Leif Erickson can be seen in a small role as one of McNally's questionable cohorts. Is this picture worth checking out? Well, it's your gamble.
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