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The Dark Side of Las Vegas on Film

Las Vegas

As a tribute to the iconic city, we’re going to see how Las Vegas’ darker side has inspired filmmakers. First, we’ll look at the city’s background. Then we will look at how the city provides a great backdrop for engaging characters and stories. Before finally listing some great Las Vegas films to watch.

Devil May Care

Las Vegas has long courted a controversial and unlawful reputation. Many speakeasies provided entertainment during the prohibition era. In the 1930s it became much easier to get married and divorced there than most other places in the US. The city has a thriving sex work industry despite it having been illegal for a long time. And it is of course famous for its large gambling establishments.

But the city is also known for its history of mafia activity. Gangsters like Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and other mafia figures played key roles in the development of Las Vegas establishments. This, coupled with the lack of action by police and elected officials, painted Las Vegas as a hotbed of crime and corruption. And while these elements may be less pronounced now the image of Las Vegas as “Sin City” remains largely unchanged.

Soul On Fire

It’s easy to see why filmmakers keep using Las Vegas in their work. Its image of excess presents great visual storytelling opportunities. But it also provides inbuilt possibilities for engaging stories.

Narratively, Las Vegas inherently provides strong forces to pit our protagonist against. Whether our lead is fighting corruption, organised crime (in whatever fashion) or addiction they are automatically up against an enormous challenge because of how historically embedded it is within the city. Las Vegas movies like boxing films centre on huge challenges we can all either sympathise or thematically empathise with.

It is also a great backdrop to create interesting characters. The city’s nature provides a basis to explore people who don’t fit the typical protagonist’s mould. Lead characters can be societally criminalised (mobsters, sex workers etc.) or villainized (people with addictions), making them inherently appealing because of their more realistic nature. And because they are battling against embedded dangerous forces protagonists in Las Vegas films are given a lot of room to showcase their personalities. It allows us to invest more in their struggle if we are attached to their vulnerability or determination.

So what great movies best show off the city’s darker side?

The Lady Gambles

An engrossing character study about how the risk, glamour and community of Las Vegas gambling serve to hook people into a dangerous addiction. It also features a great performance from Barbara Stanwyck.

Barbara Stanwyck is heartbreaking as the addicted Joan // Credit: Universal
Barbara Stanwyck is heartbreaking as the addicted Joan // Credit: Universal

Kolchak: The Night Stalker

This enjoyable TV horror neo-noir film follows the eponymous reporter trying to find the person (or something else?) responsible for a series of murders. While battling the authorities and his boss at every turn.

Can Kolchak find out who is stalking the Las Vegas streets? //Credit: ABC Films
Can Kolchak find out who is stalking the Las Vegas streets? //Credit: ABC Films

Leaving Las Vegas

A self-destructive alcoholic writer and a sex worker seeking genuine connection manage to find kinship but how long will it last? A brutal look at the alienation faced by those with no control over their lives.

Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue  give career-best performances in Leaving Las Vegas // Credit: United Artists
Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue give career-best performances in Leaving Las Vegas // Credit: United Artists

Casino

Casino tells the thrilling story of two friends tasked with ensuring that their Las Vegas casino runs smoothly for their mob overlords. But when personal drama threatens the operation’s stability their lives hang in the balance.

Robert De Niro is perhaps the most intimidating casino boss in Las Vegas // Credit: Universal
Robert De Niro is perhaps the most intimidating casino boss in Las Vegas // Credit: Universal

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas

Raoul Duke and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo head to Las Vegas, searching for the American dream. When their engagingly surreal odyssey ends, the American dream is revealed as a lie built on violence and exploitation. Something embodied perfectly by the setting.

Fear and Loathing takes us to the terrifying heart of the American dream // Credit: Universal
Fear and Loathing takes us to the terrifying heart of the American dream // Credit: Universal

Also Read: The Eternal Appeal of the Boxing Movie

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Posted by
Josh Greally

Writer and filmmaker. I have a masters in directing film and television and have written film reviews for several smaller sites in the past. Films are my life, but I also enjoy writing, reading, listening to music and debating.