In this back alley, a dice game is going on - a fixed dice game, and when the participants realise that the instigator runs off, leaving the woman who was his partner to kiss the dice for good luck to face the music, or rather face the punches of two of the cheated men, leaving her unconscious in the gutter. On being taken to the hospital to recover, there is someone looking for her: she used to be Mrs Joan Boothe (Barbara Stanwyck), a respectable lady married to David (Robert Preston), and they were both writers, but when she went to Las Vegas to pen a story on the gambling there she found herself intrigued by the place, and one of the businessmen running a casino in the city, Corrigan (Stephen McNally). It was a slippery slope...
The Lady Gambles was what was termed as a "women’s picture" in its day, that was a movie designed with the substantial female audience in mind, and there were few female stars bigger than Barbara Stanwyck in the nineteen-forties, indeed she had been the highest paid woman in the United States at one point in the decade. Nevertheless, this was regarded as one of her lesser films since it was taken as a variation on Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend, only with Stanwyck as Ray Milland and gambling replacing alcoholism, and though comparisons are odious, there was an element of inviting us to watch Joan's downward spiral with a rather prurient attitude which left it very much in Wilder's shadow.
Still, if the ladies in the audience could indulge themselves in Barbara's soapy suffering, much as they would with Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, then the film had done its job, and rest assured there was plenty of suffering here. When David catches up with her he discusses her case with an uncaring and dismissive doctor (John Hoyt): he has seen this sort of wreck before and has become jaded. The estranged husband is understandably more concerned, seeing that she may be due a prison term for various misdemeanours, including gambling obviously but also prostitution, not that the Production Code allowed the use of that particular word so she has to be termed a tramp instead, though we can tell what they mean.
The rest of the story is taken up with a lengthy flashback to depict how Joan sank to such depths, but if anything the film seemed reluctant to really illustrate how awful her life had become, preferring to pussyfoot around the subject with the more socially acceptable break-up of the marriage, yes, divorce was more respectable than illegal gambling even back then, when you wouldn't think that would have been the case. Thus we were offered the two leads taking a trip to the Hoover Dam (where we are told nobody has ever committed suicide, a little plot foreshadowing there) and more importantly Las Vegas, which features the regulation montage of all those neon signs just so we are in no doubt as to where this was set, even if it seems the stars never actually left the studio lot to perform.
Interestingly, there was a thank you to the administrators of that city's gambling premises in the opening credits, which either meant they were covering themselves by presenting themselves as responsible and worried about the addiction they may have spawned, or this was the only way the film could have been made, by ensuring that they had the collaboration of the establishments it was actually condemning. Though not so much that it didn't let Joan off the hook, she is a curious mix of victim and agent of her own doom, and Stanwyck was her usual professional self, though some of the over the top scenes she was requested to act in had the whiff of camp even then, not least her sexual heat in demonstrating the thrill of betting on the dice tables, and that ending. The seamy introduction remained fairly arresting for its violence against a female character, but not much of what came after lived up to it, with Joan's dissolute lifestyle indicated by her dyeing her hair blonde for instance. Sadly, what this most became known for was being blamed for a mass murder soon after it was released, the killer claiming it pushed him over the edge, something we would hear again as the decades rolled on. Music by Frank Skinner.
[Simply Media's Region 2 DVD has no extras, but looks and sounds fine.]