Place Your Bets

A gambling film that plays it safe; a re-release that doesn’t.

Directed by John Dahl
Miramax Films

Touch of Evil
Directed by Orson Welles
October Films

Matt Damon makes me wary–I smell a hustler. But I can’t catch him faking the way I can his buddy Ben Affleck or the prodigiously bogus Brad Pitt. No, Damon’s a smartie, and unquestionably a movie star. Already, he has staked out his own chunk of dramatic territory: He’s the intellectual who’s also a prole, who’s arrested between the worlds of privilege and the street, who thinks and gets high on thinking but who also wrestles with earthier instincts. Are those instincts base or noble? A sign of corruption or purity? The conflict is as old as melodrama, but Damon makes the lines sound as if he’s hammering them out on the spot. It’s seductive, the way the wheels are always turning behind those small eyes, the way he licks his lips to suppress his emotions and then cagily examines his options. I can’t recall another actor who seems at once so earnest and so cunning, so ingenuous yet with something so clearly up his sleeve.

This paradoxical persona serves him gorgeously in Rounders, a snappy and ingratiating gambling picture in which Damon plays a character who fleeces “suckers” in poker games yet has a fundamental rectitude. His Mike McDermott begins by explaining, in a current of voice-over narration that hums through the movie, “If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half-hour at the table then you are the sucker.” Losing his life savings to a menacingly fey Russian gangster (John Malkovich) in the first 10 minutes, Damon’s Mike has you rooting for him not only to get payback from the weird Russki but to take what he can off anyone dumb enough to sit across a card table from him, accepting the rightness of the line “It’s immoral to let a sucker keep his money.”

Arounder is defined–in a handy glossary included with my press notes–as “[a] player who knows all the angles and earns his living at the poker table. The absolute opposite of a ‘sucker.’ ” But Rounders makes distinctions among rounders. Mike is supposed to be an honest connoisseur of card playing nature, a master whose expertise derives from spotting “tells,” from “watching the player, not the cards.” On the other hand, his buddy Worm (Edward Norton), newly discharged from prison, is a reckless and compulsive cheat who gets off on perpetually putting one impudent twinkle toe over the line. When Mike attempts to go “straight” by enrolling in law school (!) and moving in with a classy blond classmate (Gretchen Mol), Worm emerges from his hole to play the snake and lure his old chum back into the game.

Rounders is an unusually talky movie, but the talk is slick and fast and the writers, David Levien and Brian Koppelman, wear their research on their sleeves. In fact, the script is a model of research and construction, a real summa cum laude effort from the school of screenplay pedant Robert McKee. The settings have a density of detail that makes them feel authentic, from the Brooklyn basement dens of the Russian mafia to the kitsch palaces of Atlantic City to the blue-collar bingo halls of Binghamton, N.Y.; and the aforementioned four page glossary is a bounty for urban anthropologists. (“Alligator Blood: A compliment given to an outstanding player who proves himself unflappable under great pressure. … Snap Off: To beat someone, often a bluffer, and usually with a not especially powerful hand.”)

Despite its high-wire subject, though, this is not a movie made by gamblers. It’s a studied, deliberate, calculating piece of work, a formula Go-For-It picture with a jolt of Mean Streets to give it some edge. The morality is spoon-fed and self-serving. The writers use Worm to rack up debts with the vicious bully Grama (Michael Rispoli), who’s sponsored by–guess whoski? So Mike plays cards to save his friend’s life and–climactically, against his old adversary–his own. Although his blonde says what all blondes say in this sort of boy-movie setup–variations on “If you play cards again, I won’t be here when you come home”–his elderly mentor, Judge Abe Petrovsky (Martin Landau), assures him he can’t run from who he is, that “our destiny chooses us.” May the Alligator Blood be with you, Luke.

Rounders was one of those spec scripts that has become legend in Hollywood, selling for heaps of cash and attracting big-deal producers and stars who boasted that they “didn’t have to change a word.” Actually, they ought to have changed a couple. They might have given the Golden Girl more to say than her handful of wet blanket reproaches, and Worm deserved a bigger last act. Only my abiding affection for Landau kept me from snickering out loud at his rabbinical monologues, in which he explains why he defied his yeshiva more than half a century ago and followed his dream by going to law school. (He says the one thing he took from yeshiva was to be true to oneself. What tripe! In yeshiva, being true to yourself is possible only if you recognize that your true self longs to submit to the rule of Torah. It doesn’t mean that God is in those poker chips.)

S o why do I recommend Rounders? Because I’m a sucker–I was entertained. It’s fun to watch these jazzy young actors scrutinize their cards and each other and throw around their poker lingo; and the director, John Dahl (The Last Seduction, 1994), gives the picture a jaunty tempo and a deep-toned Rembrandt look without ever calling attention to his hand. The script is good at making you think that it has better cards than it really does. And the actors constitute a royal flush–OK, OK, enough with the poker metaphors. The tall, skinny Norton bobs and slits his eyes and twists his mouth into a yokel sneer and is wholly impossible to dislike, even when his character keeps crazily upping the ante. In the schematic role of a sober, family-man gambler called Knish, John Turturro proves that he doesn’t always need to chew the scenery: Mumbling, hovering, shuffling in the margins, he makes you watch him closely to discern his real, complicated feelings.

And then there’s Malkovich, who does a Russian mafioso the way Olivier would have done one. Start with an accent unlike any heard anywhere on the planet, with syllables drawn out so audaciously that you want to applaud every line. He doesn’t raise you, he rie-yee-zes you, and then informs you, Meester Son Ahv Ay Beeeech, that you’ll soon see your hups go dow-in the drie-yeen (i.e., your hopes go down the drain). He’s steeped in Russian melancholy, but he isn’t pickled–those eyes are hard and mean. He opens an Oreo, holds it to his face, and slides his teeth along the cream while raking his opponent with invisible bullets. Malkovich is the only person in this potboiler who dares.

H e would have fit right into Touch of Evil, which overflows with rococo, mannerist ham acting. The 1958 film has been re-released in a new, expanded cut that conforms to a 58 page list of suggestions that Orson Welles, its writer-director-star, wrote after viewing the studio re-edit. Most of today’s so-called “director’s cuts” are marketing gimmicks, but the people behind this one–producer Rick Schmidlin, editor Walter Murch, and critic/consultant Jonathan Rosenbaum among them–deserve some kind of Academy Award. Sequences that once were run together by a studio bent on linearity are now fractured and intercut in accordance with Welles’ intentions, and the still-astonishing first shot has been shorn of credits and of the Henry Mancini theme that obscured its cacophonous sound mix. Forty years late, Touch of Evil has arrived, and it’s all of a piece.

I first saw it when I was 14 and thought it was one of the worst pictures ever–garish, oppressive, and appallingly overacted. Grown up, I’d go with those same adjectives, except now I think it’s one of the best. But I’m not going to recant my first response. Part of recognizing that Touch of Evil is a masterpiece means also recognizing that it’s often suffocatingly unpleasant, and that Welles is working off his aggression for the vast, trash-movie audience that he hoped to attract. His compositions are teeming, unbalanced, with a center of gravity that lurches left then right. The overlapping dialogue and squealing Cuban-African music heard over tinny-sounding radios seems meant to induce a migraine to accompany the seasickness.

Welles isn’t just plunging his straight-laced hero and heroine (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh) into the squalor and chaos of a Mexican-U.S. border town. He’s plunging us, the viewers, into it, too. The wide-angle lenses spread the images out obscenely, so that the whole movie takes on the sweaty fatness of Welles’ Detective Hank Quinlan, and our own sense of space is continually violated. The images in Touch of Evil have been boiled down so that all its ingredients are mashed together in the sludge. It’s no wonder that Robert McKee, the spiritual father of something like Rounders, reserves a special place in hell for Welles and Citizen Kane, in which the exhibitionistic auteur incessantly upstages his own narrative. Welles was at the peak of his talent in Touch of Evil, but let’s never forget what an abrasive, high-wire, self-destructive talent he was.