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Best of John G. Brokopp
There have been many movies made about addictions of all sorts. The most memorable one for me was the 1945 classic, The Lost Weekend, starring Ray Milland and directed by Billy Wilder. Milland stars as an alcoholic who hits rock bottom during a series of tortured events that take place during a fateful weekend in New York City.
A lesser known movie, The Lady Gambles, deals with gambling addiction. Made in 1949 and directed by Michael Gordon, it stars Barbara Stanwyck as a happily married woman whose life is reduced to shambles after she becomes hopelessly hooked on gambling during a visit to Las Vegas with her husband.
A review of The Lady Gambles posted by TV Guide Online notes: "Many films have been made about the subject though none has ever really captured the psychological need to lose everything that most gamblers have."
I think the aforementioned big screen void has been most capably filled by director Richard Kwietniowski with Owning Mahowny, a new release from Sony Pictures Classics. The film, which had its world premiere at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, debuts in Chicago on May 16 at Loews Cineplex Pipers Alley, 1608 N. Wells.
Owning Mahowny is the true story of a 24-year-old banker from Toronto, Canada who embezzled $10.2 million in 1982 to feed his gambling habit. Philip Seymour Hoffman is cast in the starring role with outstanding supporting performances by John Hurt and Minnie Driver.
The movie was inspired by Gary Ross' award-winning book, Stung, which was published in 1987 and was a bestseller both in hard cover and paperback. The fascinating, compelling account of how a highly respected young banking executive was able to conceal his gambling addiction while embezzling enormous amounts of money has been vividly captured on the screen.
If you are looking for a story about a gambler wrapped around the colorful, glitzy, exciting visuals of the casino experience, Owning Mahowny will prove disappointing. This isn't just another hokey movie with a gambling theme. The troubled life of a man is the central focus. We gain entry into his thought processes and subconscious through brilliantly crafted cinematography and an insightful, revealing screenplay.
Owning Mahowny draws intriguing parallels between the worlds of high finance and casino gambling. It portrays those worlds as seen through the eyes of the main character. We see them as stark, drab, angular, money-driven environments whose principle participants can be predators and prey, perpetrators and victims, manipulators and the manipulated.
The movie's London-born writer and director, Richard Kwietniowski, made his feature film debut with Love and Death on Long Island, which won numerous awards, including the Prix Pierrot for Best First Feature Film at Cannes 1997. He has also worked extensively in British television.
"Gary Ross' book, Stung, interested me tremendously because while the first section deals with the events, it goes on to the psychology and the psychosis of gambling, plus how banking works, how casinos work, and how money works," Kwietniowski said. "I realized there's a way to tell this extraordinary story in an unextraordinary way, allowing these elements to be brought into play.
"We share two principal spaces very intimately with Dan Mahowny. Both are highly visual: The marble-encrusted bank with its monolithic regulations and the seductive, self-contained world of the casino without clocks or windows. Both are heavily policed states which handle the same commodity – money. Both are dominated by men in suits."
Kwietniowski obviously was not interested in making just another movie about gambling. He wants us to get into the head of a compulsive gambler and be able to relate in a very personal way what motivates him to allow himself to be so easily consumed by self-destructive behavior.
"I thought about a lot of classic films about addiction, such as The Lost Weekend with Ray Milland," he revealed. "They're very masculine and they're pretty much about wrestling with your demons. I thought why not try and tell the story in a way that everybody can get closer to in the sense that I think the notion of addiction is almost a part of human existence, that everybody in one way or another is aware of it. Hopefully, ideally, it's a route none of us are going to go down but it's not necessarily a story about some poor victim. It's about somebody who's so ordinary. He doesn't have anything remotely interesting about his life except his rather pretty girlfriend."
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Dan Mahowny, is an acclaimed actor who has appeared in Red Dragon, Punch-Drunk Love, and 25th Hour, among many other roles. He gives a riveting performance as a man totally obsessed with the hypnotic compulsion to gamble on anything and everything.
"Philip is so focused as an actor," Kwietniowski said. "He comes with this extraordinary ability to act with his whole body, which is one reason why I sometimes filmed the back of his head, sometimes I'd go around the side of his face look at an eye in a huge close-up behind his glasses.
"We filmed it out of sequence, so we spent a few weeks filming all the other material before we got to the casino scenes. Then finally we get to the scene in the casino and there is a very extraordinary moment when Philip and I both more or less said the same thing, "Oh God, do we really have to put the poor guy through all this because we just spent so long with the consequences."
Audiences will not be distracted from the central focus of the film by obligatory scenes of casino action, which in many ways serve as window dressing crutches for the director to tell the story. You become so involved with what the main character is thinking and feeling that you really don't need the visuals. You see the result in his eyes and his body language.
"Early on I made the decision I didn't want to ever show the result of dice being thrown," Kwietniowski said. "I never wanted to show the result of a card being turned on the blackjack table. I didn't want audiences to say: 'Oh, he's got 20...oh, the dealer gets 21.' Instead I wanted to keep it much closer, so that his behavior, his movements, those repetitive gestures and so on, are the focus. The guys in the surveillance room actually call him 'The Iceman' because they can't really tell whether he's winning or losing. It really is just this pure desire to keep playing, which I think we all really understand, actually."
There is one particularly critical moment in the film when Mahowny is approached in the casino by a desperate young woman who has obviously lost all her money in the casino and is desperate for more, even to the point of begging a total stranger.
"It's one of my favorite moments in the film," Kwietniowski revealed. "I filmed it at first all in one shot with a long lens, so that the camera was really quite far away from them and there people kind of crossing the frame between us and them. I was so excited by the kind of horrible intensity that we got that I didn't bother with any close-ups or anything. I said 'We've got the scene' and I decided to run it in one shot. It's a little fragment in the whole thing, but I really think its kind of a crucial one because you see her early on, having a ball, having the time of her life at the craps table. Suddenly 12 hours later she's lucked out, she's got no money left.
"She comes up to Mahowny and you think she's a hooker and that there's no telling what she would have offered him in exchange for two hundred dollars. And the irony is he can't wait to get away from her because it's almost as if, 'Oh my God, am I like that? …no, no, no, get her out of here. Get her away.' And he really brushes her off and runs away. I think it's a very significant moment for Dan because it's like, "God, how pathetic, look at her."
Whereas the world of casino gambling is portrayed in its darkest, most predatory light, the world of banking is presented in an oddly similar way, offering revealing insight into how addicted individuals can manipulate one system only to be victimized by another.
"I got more and more interested in what the central character was doing in both environments," the director continued. "During the day he's paid to move other people's money about and that's exactly what he does at night in the casino. I was very interested in setting up a sort of confusion between the world of the bank and the world of the casino. They are two environments which operate according to money, and the central character regards money as kind of an abstraction. It's just something to play with, so during the day he's buying and selling shares and in the evening he's ultimately gambling with enormous amounts of money. It really has no meaning to him. He doesn't fix value to money. He doesn't say 'This will buy me a great new car, finally, or a decent suit'. He's just not remotely interested in any of that stuff. I think there are a couple of times in the film when you see money being counted and at first you're not sure whether you're in the bank or in the casino."
Mahowny has no interest in the perks his opulent casino play has the power of commanding. John Hurt, who plays the casino manager, takes cruel delight in this. Instead of requesting complimentary steak and lobster dinners with fine wining, all Mahowny asks for are ribs with no sauce and a Coke. He even turns down the complimentary services of a call-girl sent to his room.
There's a sequence in the movie when Mahoney gets on an incredible roll at the baccarat table. He takes the casino for millions, then moves on to the craps table where his winning streak continues. The casino manager is nudged by an obviously worried fellow employee, but Hurt tells him: "Wait and see what he has at four o'clock this morning."
I found myself urging him, begging him to walk away from the table with his winnings. There are scenes of casino personnel and the surveillance room supervisors doing the same. But that isn't what motivates Mahowny. He doesn't want to stop playing. It's almost as if he is waiting, wanting to, lose it all back.
"I think it's human nature to cheer for him to walk away, but we know he can't, Kwietniowski said. "Basically, he can't leave when he's up, and that's the tragedy in a sense. It's also why I had the scene in the movie where he's talking to the woman from the casino cage. While they're waiting for the plane to take off, he actually tells her that you win and lose each time you play. So it's a question of a very narrow margin. It's not as if you either go to lose all the time or you go to win all the time which makes that whole night even more remarkable."
Mahowny eventually helps to weave a web that leads to the discovery of the embezzlement and his apprehension. There's a scene near the conclusion of the movie when he is questioned about his addiction. He is asked to rate the thrill of gambling on a scale of 1 to 100. Mahowny answers "100". When asked to rate the biggest thrill outside of gambling he answers "20".
"Can you live on 20 percent?' he is asked.
This article is provided by the Frank Scoblete Network. Melissa A. Kaplan is the network's managing editor. If you would like to use this article on your website, please contact Casino City Press, the exclusive web syndication outlet for the Frank Scoblete Network. To contact Frank, please e-mail him at email@example.com.
John G. Brokopp