Karel Reisz’ The Gambler is a harrowing and complex look at gambling addiction and one man’s self destructive behavior because of it. It’s a strong film that could have been a brilliant film but does make for a great companion piece with another great gambling film (both of which were released in 1974), Robert Altman’s California Split with Elliot Gould and George Segal. Altman’s film covers the subject somewhat more lightly but no less tragically because good things rarely haapen to those who are addicted to the sport of gambling and when it does, it usually doesn’t end well. It’s the addiction. The one difference between the two films is that Altman’s film almost exclusively covers the gambling addiction of one or both characters. Reisz’ film becomes more interested in a full character study instead of the fascinating character trait we all have – one of addiction. When the subject of gambling disappears the film falters slightly – but only slightly. This is still a very strong movie but one that should have been great.
James Toback’s self admitted gambling addictions form the basis for his uncompromising original screenplay which stars James Caan, in one of his very best performances, as Axel Freed, an English professor at a University in New York City who a gambling addiction that is spiraling further and further out of control. Axel is the type of guy who has had everything handed to him on a silver platter his whole life thanks to his rich grandfather and equally giving mother. Deep down you get the feeling that Axel wants to start at the bottom the way his grandfather once did, and earn his mettle in life like everyone else. That desire may be so deep that he has put himself on a course of self destruction in the hopes of having to get out of it himself. He seems to want to find that layer that leads to an abyss and then try to bring himself back from it.
As the film opens Axel is in trouble. A lot of trouble. He owes $44,000 to his bookie for bad basketball bets and bad luck at the card table. He has never been in debt this badly and the only person he can turn to is his mother, a nurse with a good heart who loves and worries about her son. In a telling scene, after she has agreed to give him the money, they play tennis where Axel seemingly takes out his whole life’s frustrations on the tennis ball with little regard to his mother’s safety. Why is he so angry? Perhaps he believed he had finally hit rock bottom and even his mother would not be able to help. But she does and he not so conspicuously rebels against her.
What is an addicted gambler to do with $44 thousand in his pocket? He grabs his girlfriend (Lauren Hutton) and high tails it to Las Vegas where Axel goes on a roll that one might believe exists only in the movies (in one of the few silly moments, Axel hits on a standing 18 in a game of blackjack and hits the 3 after seemingly willing it to happen.) He can’t lose at dice and bets on some sure thing college basketball games, each of which he is easily winning at halftime. Later, in the middle of the night after coming home, Axel gets a rude visit from some toughs who inform Axel he ended up losing all the basketball games.
Caan’s Axel Freed is a complex character. He treats his girlfriend poorly (even letting her walk off from a day trip together), he is selfish and cocky and yet we feel sorry for him. In one of the best scenes of the movie, Caan explains to Hutton that winning isn’t the rush in gambling. It’s the chance of losing that gives him that excitement. It’s a sick notion but one I expect is fairly common amongst the hardcore gamblers who have had little to no success. Axel is trying to crash and burn, I suspect, so he can rise from the ashes like a phoenix and start his life over again. When he hears from his bookie that his grandfather wouldn’t help Axel out with his debt, Axel angrily goes to visit the old man but when the old man gives in and offers help, Axel refuses the offer. Once again it’s the excitement of losing while resisting yet another opportunity to be rescued, when Axel needs rescuing from himself.
Finally, so in debt there is little left he can do, Axel, I believe, hits rock bottom by asking one of his students, a basketball player, to make sure their team doesn’t cover the point spread in their next basketball game. Even then, when the team doesn’t cover, Axel is not satisfied. He has to go into one more dangerous situation believing he still needs to earn his stripes. He goes to a violent part of town, picks up a hooker and goes to a room. He notices (and this is telling to the entire key of the characterization of Axel) the hooker has left the door slightly ajar. Why doesn’t he close and lock the door? Axel will end up with a reminder of his failures and, hopefully, rise from the ashes for the rest of his life. I would love to see Caan and Toback make a sequel to this film to trace the steps of Axel’s (hopeful) rise and see what he did with his life.
On the surface The Gambler seems like a straightforward character study. It isn’t until later when you start stripping away the layers that you see how complex and deep both Toback’s screenplay and Caan’s performance is. Toback doesn’t spell out anything. The subtleties of the flawed character of Axel are there but sometimes you have to look closely. Take, for example, a scene where he is looking for a new bookie. Burt Young, as the bookie’s thug, takes Caan on a ride along that ends up at the home of another addicted gambler. The wife of the man tells Young he is gone. Young forces himself in and starts destroying tearing up the living room until the man reluctantly appears. Axel watches all of this with an almost unnoticeable smirk. It’s very slight and director Reisz cuts to Caan for only a second in a medium shot so as to not give it away. Is Axel enjoying what he sees? Perhaps he would be better off as a thug himself? Or is he happy to see he is not the only one with problems like his? Or perhaps he is smiling because he has never had to worry about paying off a debt with the threat of bodily harm in the air? It’s an interesting moment with a solution left up to you.
There aren’t many films nowadays that allow the viewer the time to think and give them the consideration to come up with solutions of their own. Come to think of it, the 1970’s didn’t exactly have a plethora of movies like that either so it’s a pleasure to see one come along in any decade.
The Gambler is one of the strongest films I have seen in my quest to see as many of the films of the 1970’s as possible. The articles I write only skim the surface. Yes I have sat through loads of blaxploitation movies and most of them are bad. A few of them are enjoyable. I will be writing an article about the whole genre later down the line. Yes I have endured some awful kung-fu movies such as Bamboo Gods and Iron Men. Yes I have had to stomach the awfulness of several horror movies, most of them ripping off The Exorcist. In quick succession I saw Abby, J.D’s Revenge, Beyond The Door and The Devil Within Her. Yes I can honestly say that the majority of movies I am watching are forgettable so when a classy, thought provoking film like The Gambler comes along I cannot write it down to tell you all about it fast enough.