Joan (Barbara Stanwyck) and her husband, David (Robert Preston), are both reporters. On a trip to Nevada, he’s working on a story about the Hoover Dam, while she’s decided to sneak a hidden camera into a Las Vegas casino for a potential story of her own.
Casino owner Horace Corrigan (Stephen McNally) quickly realizes what Joan is doing and confronts her about it. Rather than banishing her from the casino, he gives her some house chips to gamble with, and agrees to let her take photos in the casino.
With those house chips, Joan takes a liking to gambling, but she doesn’t just like it: she becomes addicted to it. Meanwhile, her older sister Ruth (Edith Barrett) has just arrived in Vegas from Chicago and is sure to stir up trouble.
Michael Gordon directs 1949’s The Lady Gambles. The film comes from a story by Lewis Meltzer and Oscar Saul, adapted by Halsted Welles and written for the screen by Roy Huggins.
I was gripped by this film from its very grim opening, which has Joan involved in an alley dice game gone sour. She’s beaten by two men and taken to the hospital, where the doc seems to care more about his sandwich than he does about treating her. We’re then launched into a flashback of the couple’s time in Vegas, as David arrives at the hospital and confronts the doctor, telling him the story of Joan’s addiction.
Stany gives a top-notch performance. Her confrontations with Stephen McNally are electric, and while her descent into gambling addiction is dramatic, it isn’t played over-dramatically or comically by Stanwyck. Her performance is emotional, but sincere rather than over-the-top.
This flashback structure was interesting to me, because David doesn’t narrate the flashback the whole way through. In a few scenes he is shown talking to the doctor between our trips to the past, but the lack of narration by David during the flashback scenes kept me wondering whose perspective was being shown. Are the flashbacks being shown exactly as David would tell them, or is the viewer given an omniscient perspective? If David is, in fact, telling the story the whole way through, he is a reliable narrator? The flashback is filled with scenes in which he is uninvolved — Joan’s days at the hotel while David was working, her time at the gambling tables, her conversations with Corrigan.
Regardless of the depth of David’s involvement in the storytelling, I like the fact that the film doesn’t treat Joan’s gambling problem as a character flaw, or blame it on some sort of “weakness.” The film treats her addiction as an illness rather than demonizing her.
Alongside the cautionary tale of Joan and her gambling, there is some family drama and marriage drama woven into the script. The photography has striking contrast, and the music also bolsters the mood very effectively. It all adds up to a film that holds the viewer’s attention very well.
The Stanwyck Filmography Project has seen some favorite discoveries, and some duds. The Lady Gambles is the best discovery I’ve made through the project in quite a while! Recommended.