I had no high hopes for this TV movie and watched it solely due to my fascination/repulsion with gambling. But a peek into director Paul Bogart's creditable-plus filmography should have tipped me off to its high quality. He helmed Sondheim's fine TV musical Evening Primrose
(1966) and with Torch Song Trilogy
(1988) succeeded in creating that rare beast - a gay film worth watching. Now Winner Takes All
has me wondering what other gems lie in his prolific TV work.
Shirley Jones stars as a housewife well on her way to destroying a second marriage via a betting addiction. She's lost $30,000 of her husband's money and most of the screen time is devoted to her attempts to win it back...and more. Slowing spiraling out of control on the doomed logic of luck, she navigates a landscape of bookies, professional gamblers, pawn shops, bankers, race tracks, sleazeballs, local hotel rooms, poker tables, etc. This is a film set intensely in the public sphere with Jones taking the family station wagon from Circle of Hell A to Circle of Hell B. And Bogart suffocates us with it. Most noteworthy, the score rarely pokes through the soundtrack and fails to cushion Jones' decline as a result.
Eventually, the film will evoke the creepy standstill that characterizes casino temporality. During a climactic poker game, there's a cut away from a closeup of Jones to a shot that tracks drearily back to the table. It means to measure the passage of time. But with not even a dissolve to anchor us, we have little idea how much time has passed. We're just encrusted in the ever-present of loserdom.
In such a stupor-like state, it's easy to forget Jones even has a family. In fact, Bogart suppresses the domestic so decisively that the few brief scenes with her husband and stepdaughter hit the viewer like cold slaps of water on the face in a casino bathroom. Clearly, we're supposed to feel sorry for (if not disgusted with) Jones' messing up her life. But as with such classic melodramas as The Reckless Moment
or Madame X
, the surface tension masks a longing to escape the home and the forced option of housewifery. No matter how low she descends, she derives some sort of self-actualization from her fall, a fact the happy ending (which comes hard and fast, like all happy endings) does nothing to undermine.