Lay The Favorite, Gambling feature
Stephen Frears' "Lay the Favorite," the story of a characterful young woman (Rebecca Hall) who becomes involved in sports gambling, and which co-stars Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joshua Jackson, Vince Vaughn and Frank Grillo, slinks into theaters this week. In a way, it's lucky to do so. Not taken too kindly by critics when it premiered at Sundance way back in January, it's already hit theaters in much of the world elsewhere and is likely only making it to theaters out of contractual obligation.

But in fact, it's not as bad as you've heard (at least according to this writer). Hall and Willis are entertaining enough, and it has a few pleasures to it, even if it's far from the return to the spirit of "The Grifters" we were hoping for. But the film's arrival in multiplexes has mostly had the effect of reminding us of some other great gambling movies of the past, and so to celebrate/distract from the film's release, we've picked out five of our favorites. Most, but not all, revolve around card games of various kinds, and we tried to narrow the list down to films that are actually about gambling, rather than ones that simply feature it as a backdrop ("Croupier," "The Sting" and "Casino" are among those that spring to mind). But of course, we couldn't feature everything, so make the case for your favorites in the comments section below. "Lay the Favorite" hits theaters on Friday, December 7th.

The Hustler
"The Hustler" (1961)
Perhaps not as immediately associated with gambling as poker or other casino-based pursuits, pool is still probably the world's favorite method of losing small sums of money to your mates, and as such, it's appropriate that one of the first, and still the best, gambling-based movies revolves around the sport in "The Hustler." An adaptation of Walter Tevis' novel by director Robert Rossen (who co-wrote the script with Sidney Carroll), the film stars Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, the Californian hustler of the title, who in the film's opening scenes challenges the legendary Minnesota Fats ("The Honeymooners" star Jackie Gleason in a relatively rare straight role, winning an Oscar nomination for his trouble) with the aim of winning $10,000 from him. But he's humiliated by Fats, sent away with his tail between his legs, and only $200 of his stake left. But inspired by local alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie), he comes back for another go, getting in too deep with pro gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) in the process. Not just a great gambling movie, but also a great sports film about the true battle of wills not just between Felson and Fats on the baize, but also the one for Fast Eddie's soul, fought between the tragic Sarah, and the increasingly sinister Bert. Rossen shoots the pool excitingly (no mean feat), but the real meat is in the morality tale off the table. The cast, too are uniformly great (Newman, Gleason, Laurie and Scott were all nominated for Oscars, though Scott refused the nod), particularly Newman in a tortured, charismatic part that would become one of his most iconic. It's no surprise that he'd return to it later for Martin Scorsese's solid but inferior "The Color of Money."

The Cincinnati Kid
"The Cincinnati Kid" (1965)
A star-laden period piece, "The Cincinnati Kid" suffered through a difficult production (Spencer Tracy dropped out before shooting, and original director Sam Peckinpah was fired mid-shoot, replaced by Norman Jewison) to become a huge box-office hit. And close to fifty years on, it still stands up as a solid little poker movie, setting up the template for many imitators to come. Based on Richard Jessup's 1930s-set novel, it sees Steve McQueen play the title character (Eric Stoner to his mom), who sets out to take on poker legend Lancey "The Man" Howard (Edward G. Robinson), who destroyed him in an earlier game. There are distractions along the way, from women (Tuesday Weld and Ann-Margret), his best friend "The Shooter" (Karl Malden) and no-good businessman Slade (Rip Torn), who wants to fix the game to get revenge on Howard. But really, it's all about that final showdown, which takes up a huge chunk of the running time, and while it sometimes descends into what we'd describe as "Casino Royale" syndrome (Four of a kind! Straight flush! Royal flush! The odds of the final crucial hand are, for the record, 332 billion to 1), it's tense and absorbing stuff, even for novices of the game. McQueen's on solid form, though he's overshadowed considerably by a stacked supporting cast (also featuring Cab Calloway and Jack Weston), with Robinson in particular the stand-out. Yeah, it's basically "The Hustler" with poker, but with that cast, a snappy script from Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern, and Jewison on top form, it's an entertaining couple of hours.