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
Baccarat, poker, craps, roulette, you name it, the top agent of the British Crown has played it all. And indeed, the suave spy is often shown sauntering on lavish casino floors and beating the house at its own game.
What many movie buffs do not know is that roulette is Bond’s original game of choice. It is frequently featured in Ian Fleming’s 007 books. Roulette made a legendary appearance in the seventh installment in the Bond series, Diamonds Are Forever from 1971.
The scenes were shot at the roulette tables of Sin City’s Circus Circus Casino, with the opening credits giving us a glimpse of Sean Connery ramming the villain’s head into a roulette wheel. Another scene shows how Bond is already at the table and wins straight up with 17 black.
The irony lies in the fact that Connery won big with the same number during a 1963 visit to Casino de la Vallée Saint Vincent in Italy. The actor put an unknown amount on the line with a bet on 17 black and lost twice in a row.
Connery persisted and bet on 17 again, which hit on the third spin. The actor let his winnings ride and again won with 17.
Instead of calling it quits, Connery let it ride again only to score a third consecutive win with this number at astronomically small odds of 1 to 50,653. The actor left the roulette table $27,000 richer, which amounts to over $220,000 in today’s money.
It is no surprise 17 black has become the most commonly wagered individual number in roulette since this then. Mike Ashley, the owner of Newcastle United, scored £1.3 million in 2008 by betting 17 black to the maximum, which further boosted this lucky number’s popularity.
The Gaffed Wheel in Rick's Café Americain in Casablanca
Roulette makes an iconic appearance in Casablanca, the timeless masterpiece starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman that received three Academy Awards in 1943. The film takes us to Morocco in the early 1940s. Bogart’s character Rick Blaine runs illegal gambling operations in his Café Americain.
One of the most memorable scenes in the movie takes place at the roulette table. A young Bulgarian couple, Annina and Jan, gamble their life savings in an attempt to win enough money to purchase visas that would allow them to flee to the United States.
The couple is losing hard when Bogart’s character walks over to the roulette table and loudly suggests Jan should play 22 black. The number appears on the next spin and Rick insists that Jan and the croupier should stick with 22 black. Of course, it hits again because the wheel is gaffed. This puts an end to the young couple’s financial struggles and they flee to the States.
The roulette table is of great significance in Casablanca. This is where Rick commits his first unselfish act since Ilsa (Bergman’s character) left him. This iconic scene was later referenced in Lost in America (1985) where a married couple also bets on 22 black but loses everything to the wheel in Las Vegas’ Desert Inn Casino.
A similar streak occurs in the three-plot flick Run Lola Run from 1998. The eponymous character Lola (played by Franka Potente) is given 20 minutes to deliver the hefty sum of 100,000 Deutsche Mark or else her boyfriend will be killed.
In one of the three plots, Lola goes to the casino and posts a 100 chip on 20 black. She wins straight up, lets it ride, and wins again with the same number, collecting 126,000 Deutsche Mark from her roulette exploits.
The Devil's Wheel in Mike Hodges' Croupier
Mike Hodges’ Croupier is easily one of the most iconic gambling-related flicks to ever hit the silver screen. As you might have guessed from the title, roulette is prominently featured in this 1998 neo-noir movie.
Well-received by critics in the UK and the USA, Croupier helped launch the carrier of actor Clive Owen, who went on to star in other Hollywood blockbusters like The Bourne Identity and Children of Men.
The movie relates the story of struggling writer Jack Manfred (played by Owen), who takes up a croupier job to make ends meet and find inspiration for his book. Jack becomes entangled in the gambling business and eventually plays a central role in the planned robbery of the casino he works in.
The significance of Croupier is undeniable. Few gambling-related films succeed in recreating the atmosphere of the casino floor with such authenticity. The movie offers some of the most realistic casino depictions ever captured on film.
What’s unique about Croupier is that it shows us things from the perspective of the casino employee who is confronted with corruption and devastating losses on a day-to-day basis. According to some critics, the film conveys the idea that life, like roulette, is a game of chance.
Several Honorable Mentions
The three movies we talked about above have acquired the status of timeless masterpieces. Roulette also makes notable appearances in several other flicks we cover in brief below. Here are our honorable mentions of roulette on the silver screen:
- The Sting (1973) with Paul Newman and Robert Redford where 22 black hits on another gaffed wheel.
- Indecent Proposal (1993) with Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson where a billionaire offers a man $1 million in exchange for sleeping with his wife. The roulette table is where the three main characters meet.
- Havana (1990) with Lena Olin and Robert Redford relates the story of a professional gambler (played by Redford) during his exploits in Havana. Redford’s character Jack advises a woman at the roulette table to bet on red or black instead of posting straight-up bets. When the woman asks him whether this would increase her chances of winning, the pro explains that she will still lose but at a slower pace.
- Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) with Steve Martin and Michael Caine where two conmen play roulette while trying to scam a contest winner on a paid vacation to France who they believe is a wealthy American heiress.
Roulette on the Small Screen
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
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”
Literary scholars are yet to agree which real-life German city has served as the inspiration for Roulettenburg. Some argue the book is based on Dostoyevsky’s gambling misfortunes at the roulette tables in Bad Homburg while others believe the Spielbank Casino in Wiesbaden inspired the Russian novelist for the setting in The Gambler.
Dostoyevsky played roulette in both cities. He first arrived in Wiesbaden in 1963 while on a European trip with his mistress Polina Suslova. In a letter to his brother Mikhail from September, Dostoyevsky revealed his losses were so great that he was forced to pawn his watch in Geneva during the trip with Suslova. “Suddenly I started to lose, couldn’t control myself and lost everything”, he wrote.
From that moment on, the novelist frequented casinos in Baden-Baden and Homburg right until 1871 when his gambling compulsion began to subside. The novelist gambled at roulette with such a frenzy that he was forced to recoup his losses through writing.
Dostoyevsky first outlined the idea of The Gambler in an 1866 letter to literary critic and publicist Nikolay Strakhov. The writer then entered a risky contract with prominent publisher Fyodor Stellovsky with which he agreed to produce a novel within a very short period to pay off his gambling debts.
If he failed, Stellovsky would publish his works for the next nine years without paying anything to the author. Against all odds, Dostoyevsky finished The Gambler in less than a month with the assistance of his future wife and a stenographer, who transcribed and copied the novel for him.
Inside the Mind of a Compulsive Gambler
There are many biographical parallels with Dostoyevsky’s real-life roulette stints in The Gambler. The short novel relates the story of young tutor Alexei Ivanovich who works in the family of a debt-ridden Russian General. Alexei is in love with the General’s cruel niece Polina.
To impress her, he agrees to visit a local German casino, try to win at roulette, and give the money to Polina so that the General could pay off his debts. In a dramatic chain of events, Alexei becomes lost in a ceaseless spiral of gambling and losing. His compulsion is further accentuated by his craving for the heartless Polina.
With The Gambler, Dostoyevsky succeeded in creating one of the most stunning pieces of Russian literature which also happens to give us an accurate glimpse into the mind of a compulsive gambler.
Significance of Roulette in Popular Culture
Roulette in Music Hall Productions
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).View more...