The Lady Gambles (1949)
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First you start with a flashback by Preston's character that isn't quite a flashback, because we are more interested in who this man is and what the circumstances of his plight are, than the past per se. Virtually all Hollywood flashbacks seem to involve some grand police confession or some need to explain the confessor (such as "D.O.A.")but the flashback here seems to add to the convolutedness of the characters, and the surrealism of the situation. Does Preston really understand his wife? If so when? The flashback reminds us that there is more to explain than the "what",but also the "why" which neither Preston nor the audience yet understand (gambling is a disease, but the matter of guilt and personal responsibility for misdeeds remain open).
More convolutedness in the photography. Carefully cropped chest-up body shots, with swirling camera movements amid authentic but claustrophobic interiors. Remember, only Max Ophuls was supposed to have done this sort of thing at the time! I remember "Leaving Las Vegas" attempted the same themes in slightly different ways (misery and anomie in a spectacular setting) but that was a miserable film.
Finally you have a not so sweet resolution to depict insanity, but in a much subtler way than "The Snake Pit" and other entries in the growing body of 'social consciousness' films. Stanwyck was a tough-soft actress, and the scenes where she rolls before a throng a gamblers rarely came tougher in her films. A work to just watch.
At first it starts out innocent. She is a curious woman who observes people and games in the casino. But when she decides to risk her own money to have some fun, she instantly throws herself into a bottomless pit from which she cannot escape. Gambling is indeed a deadly addiction, and Joan Boothe slowly destroys herself as well as those around her - husband, sister and business partners - by her unstoppable vice.
As the film progresses, so does Stanwyck, who convincingly portrays a woman who tries to fight her disease only to fall deeper into it. One scene in particular is especially notable - it is a scene in which she confronts the call of gambling after a time of ease and relaxation with her husband in the Mexican coast. She comes across an old acquaintance she knew back in Las Vegas, and she rides out the storm at first by running home after realizing that she has thrown her friend's dice for him - and enjoyed it. Upon returning home she nervously starts to iron and organize clothes, when her eyes glance at the money box in the drawer. She doesn't touch it, but an ongoing internal battle is implicit. How Stanwyck does it is not fully explainable, but it is in moments like this that you realize just how much of an actress she really is. She is exquisite, versatile, pleasantly professional - definitely among the very best at her craft.
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.
Her husband, played by the future Music Man himself, Robert Preston, blames it on himself at first and eventually can't take anymore, giving her half of his savings so she can gamble it all away and so he can go on with his life. An excellent performance by stage actress Edith Barrett helps to explain Stanwyck's addictive personality. Playing her older sister, Barrett's resentment toward Stanwyck taking over her childhood are unleashed in a single emotional scene where the possessive and demanding Barrett reveals her true colors after having seemed so kindly when first introduced. Film Noir veteran Stephen McNally is excellent as the Vegas gambling casino owner who first encounters Stanwyck when she is accused of staking his joint. A ton of bit performers, both elegant and vile, become temporary enablers for Stanwyck's addiction.
Unlike Ray Milland's drunk in "The Lost Weekend", Stanwyck's mornings after are not filled with hangovers, only the desperation to start all over again. This is social drama at its most intense, starting with her being brutally beaten up. It all gets overly dramatic and intense at times, and while the lights of Vegas may seem beautiful, they are her pathways to hell. Stanwyck deserved another Oscar Nomination for this, but perhaps it was too hard for some Academy members to stomach. It was a brave role for her to take on, yet it has never made it into any of the many tributes I've seen of hers. But it ranks as an amazingly tough melodrama that is equally as engrossing as another tough dame's trek into despair: Susan Hayward in "Smash- Up".
The second half, especially the feeble attempt to recover, only to fall off the wagon, was predictable. Stanwyck is usually a powerhouse of an actress and would have been better served with a less smarmy ending. Still, the scenes of Vegas were enjoyable. I wouldn't hesitate to put this on a double bill with Reefer Madness. Through the windows of time, one cannot help to jump to the conclusion that they have some similarities. Other addiction movies, e.g. The Lost Weekend, warm the heart as well. There should be an addictions film festival. There probably is, right?
Stanwyck plays Joan Boothe, who accompanies reporter husband David (Preston) to Las Vegas where he is working on a story about the Hoover Dam. Left to her own devices, she becomes interested in gambling to the point where it becomes an addiction. Though she tries to fight it, she can't, and ultimately loses her husband and falls into the clutches of Horace Corrigan, who runs the casino and has her number.
Stanwyck does well showing Joan's downward spiral. The film dabbles in psychology in Joan's relationship with her older sister Ruth (Edith Barrett) for whom she takes responsibility, though her husband objects.
Good performances all around, as well as some brutal and scary moments. Definitely keeps your interest.
Watch for Tony Curtis in one of his first speaking roles as a telegram delivery boy. The director told him, "All you want is a tip." He's adorable.
The film is interesting to watch for the location settings. I actually bought it specifically for the Las Vegas setting as it is where I got married earlier this year and I wanted to make a comparison with 1949. The story was incidental. As it turns out, the story is OK if predictable. Stanwyck carries the film with good support from gangster Stephen McNally (Mr Corrigan). Robert Preston changes his tune during the course of the film as he swings from rejecting her to accepting her while the role of Stanwyck's sister Edith Barrett (Ruth) is pretty annoying and some sentimental pop psychology is dragged into the proceedings.
I'm sure that the inspiration behind the Las Vegas section of the film was Bugsy Siegel and his Flamingo Hotel which paved the way for the notoriety of the Strip. The main body of the film is set in the Pelican Hotel (a bit similar?) and McNally has an interest in a horse racing scam just as Bugsy did.
The film ends in a disappointingly corny way after a funny moment when John Hoyt shows us what to say to someone when they are about to jump off a window ledge. I dare you to try it some day! As for the film's climax, we have to hopefully imagine that everything will go downhill again once they return to Vegas and hit the casinos.
Joan meets an unscrupulous man, Horace Corrigan, who is part of the underworld operating in Sin City. Her association to this criminal would prove her own undoing. Once she has tasted the excitement of that world, is almost impossible to get her back to reality, as she ends losing everything, including a loving husband.
This Universal International release of 1949, directed by Michael Gordon, is sadly dated. The main attraction for watching is Barbara Stanwyck, even if this film doesn't add anything to her distinguished career. As always, Ms. Stanwyck holds our interest from the start. The surprise in this movie is Stephen McNally, who is seen as Corrigan, the corrupt man who will stop at nothing. Robert Preston doesn't have much to do as David. A young Tony Curtis can be seen for a fleeting moment as a bellhop.