Roulette in Literature, Film, and Television

Roulette has acquired a legendary status both on the casino floor and in popular culture. The Devil’s Wheel has captured the imagination of movie makers and novelists alike, who have perpetuated its iconic status over the years in film and literature.

And indeed, the thrills of anticipation inherent to this game of chance make for a great inspiration. Over the past two centuries, the now-iconic wheel has been featured in countless literary works, from classic novels to crime stories. The invention of motion pictures in the late 19th century further cemented roulette’s legendary status.

The game continues to make appearances in modern cinema and television, so much so that it is nearly impossible to find a gambling-related movie without seeing at least one scene where the spinning wheel takes centerpiece. To end this roulette guide on a lighter note, we give you a glimpse into the most legendary film and literature tributes to this old, yet ever new game.

Roulette on the Silver Screen

Roulette is one of the oldest and most famed casino games in the world, so it comes as no surprise it has made appearances on the silver screen on multiple occasions. Some gambling-related films only show the game playing in the background. In others, roulette has a greater significance to the plot.

Many filmmakers use the spinning wheel as a tool to build up suspense and keep audience members on the edge of their seats. Viewers bate their breaths as the ball travels around the wheel until the scene finally culminates in a close-up of the chosen number that ultimately determines the fate of the character.

Everything is on display here, which is not the case with card games like poker or baccarat where multiple camera angles are necessary to trace out the action. It is not difficult to see why filmmakers turn to the roulette wheel when seeking to produce a dramatic effect. We have picked three iconic motion pictures where the legendary wheel is used for this purpose.

James Bond and His Famed Black 17 Bet
The Gaffed Wheel in Rick's Café Americain in Casablanca
The Devil's Wheel in Mike Hodges' Croupier
Several Honorable Mentions

Roulette on the Small Screen

1South Park

The iconic casino game also appears on the small screen, albeit with less regularity. Roulette was featured in an episode from the seventh season of the animated series South Park. In Red Man’s Greed, the owners of the fictitious Three Feathers Indian Casino have bought the entire town of South Park, intending to turn it into the next gambling Mecca.

South Park citizens attempt to buy their town back by gambling all the money they collectively have on roulette. The citizens bet their savings on 31 black and surprisingly their number shows. Instead of collecting their winnings and saving the town, they become greedy (like many gamblers tend to do) and decide to let it ride. In a comedic turn of events, they lose everything on the next round when the ball settles on 2 red.

2Lucy Goes to Monte Carlo

Roulette had a brief stint on the small screen in Lucy Goes to Monte Carlo from season 5 of the American TV series I Love Lucy. The eponymous character attempts to return a chip she accidentally found on the casino floor by placing it on the roulette layout.

The number she posted the chip on hits. She tries to return the money explaining she won by accident with someone else’s chip but the croupier fails to understand her and pays her out.

Vice and Gambling Addiction in Dostoyevsky's The Gambler

“Is it really not possible to touch the gaming table without being instantly infected by superstition?”

“Now I felt like a winner and was afraid of nothing, of nothing in the world, as I plunked down four thousand on black.”

Quotes from The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

One of the most notorious representations of roulette in books comes from Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, a stalwart of the Russian literature. The literary giant was an avid roulette player, so much so that he lost a fortune to the game while struggling with gambling addiction for nearly ten years.

Dostoyevsky relates his exploits at the roulette tables in his 1866 short novel The Gambler. Ironically, the novelist produced this piece of literature in 26 days only under extreme pressure from his creditors. The plot is set in a fictitious German resort town, aptly called Roulettenburg.

Dostoyevsky's Exploits in “Roulettenburg”
Inside the Mind of a Compulsive Gambler

Significance of Roulette in Popular Culture

Roulette in Music Hall Productions

Closing Thoughts

 

“I’ve just got here, to Paris, from the sunny southern shore.
I to Monte Carlo went, just to raise my winter’s rent.
Dame Fortune smiled upon me as she’d never done before,
And I’ve now such lots of money, I’m a gent.”

Excerpt from Fred Gilbert’s “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo

The phrase “breaking the bank” has become an inseparable part of modern gambling lingo but did you know it was inspired by the real-life exploits of a roulette player? The man in question is called Charles Wells, an infamous confidence trickster who became known as “the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo”.

This is precisely what Wells did in the late 19th century. He won around $13 million in today’s money on a five-day stint at the roulette tables of the Monte Carlo Casino. Wells’ overwhelming success at roulette served as the inspiration for a music hall song, written by Fred Gilbert around 1891.

“The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” was popularized by Charles Coborn who performed it in different languages around the world. The song enjoyed a huge success right up to the 1940s and remains Gilbert’s most successful composition to date. It is featured in a variety of productions including Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

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