GATTACA (Andrew Niccol, 1997)

by Paul Rowlands

Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Loren Dean, Alan Arkin, Gore Vidal, Ernest Borgnine, Blair Underwood, Xander Berkeley, Tony Shalhoub, Jayne Brook, Elias Koteas. 106 minutes.

'I only lent you my body. You lent me your dream.' Jerome (Jude Law) to Vincent (Ethan Hawke) in GATTACA.

'I never saved anything for the swim back.' Vincent (Ethan Hawke) reveals to his brother Anton (Loren Dean) the extent of his drive in life in GATTACA.

The work of Kiwi filmmaker Andrew Niccol exhibits an interest in exploring the moral and ethical issues raised by advances in technology: reality TV in THE TRUMAN SHOW (2008, screenplay only), computer generated actors in SIMONE (2002) and the ability to stop ageing in his most recent picture, IN TIME (2011). He's an intelligent, thought-provoking auteur who has made far too few films (he also supplied the story for 2004's THE TERMINAL and wrote/ directed the gunrunning drama LORD OF WAR, 2005). GATTACA was his writing/ directing debut, and despite flopping upon release, has garnered a cult reputation as one of the best modern sci-fi films.

GATTACA opens with two quotes. The first is from Ecclesiastes, 7:13 - 'Consider God's handiwork. Who can straighten what he hath made crooked?'. The second is from American psychiatrist and bioethicist Willard Gaylin - 'I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to'. Niccol is preparing the viewer for a science fiction film that although superficially a genre film, a chase film and a love story, is really a meditation on what it means to be human and the moral and ethical questions created by bioengineering.

Ethan Hawke is Vincent Freeman, whom through effective narration and flashbacks, we learn is not all he seems. He is a flight navigator at Gattaca, but he has gained his position surreptitiously. In the 'not-too-distant future', parents can choose at birth to tamper with their child's DNA in order to make them as perfect as possible. ('The best of you.') It's a process called 'liberal eugenics', and determines the social order. Those who are born using the process are instantly placed in the upper classes of society and are regarded as 'valids'. Those who aren't, are regarded as 'invalids' (or a 'faith birth', a 'God-child' or a 'de-gene-rate') and discriminated against in society (replacing race, gender, sexuality and education as the primary reasons for discrimination). Vincent was born without the use of 'liberal eugenics' (despite his parents having the choice) and as a result finds himself on the bottom rung of the social ladder due to his myopia and the 90% probably of him developing a weak heart and dying around the age of thirty.

Niccol creates a unique and fascinating world with his premise, and like BLADE RUNNER (1982), surely an influence, he has characters stranded on Earth desperately hoping for their chance to escape and live or work in the heavens. Both worlds have a clearly defined social class system (those with money have the chance for a better life for them and their offspring in BLADE RUNNER, those with money have the chance for a better life for their offspring if they choose the 'liberal eugenics' option in GATTACA). Both films also have a minimalist look and feel to the worlds created. We are meant to feel something by spending time in the worlds of both films, rather than sit back in awe. The huddled, rain sodden streets in BLADE RUNNER remind us that Earth is now a home for the stranded and undesirable. GATTACA's world of sharp, yellow sunlight, vertical space, and angular buildings is cold and oppressive, the yellow rays of the sun reminding us that these people live on Earth but are are in the shadow of a sun whose metaphorical representation as the 'heavens' is the only thing sustaining their spirit.

Vincent has gained his position by asuming the identity of a 'valid', Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), an-ex-swimming medallist who is now paralysed from the waist down because of a car accident. Every day, Vincent wears contact lenses and fake fingertips (with Jerome's skin, DNA and blood embedded in them), carries samples of Jerome's blood and urine in case of a sudden ID check (Vincent's interview for Gattaca consisted of a piss test) and scrubs off his dead skin and clears away any stray hairs in the shower. He also endured painful pins in his legs to tkae him to Jerome's taller height. Vincent has achieved his dream of becoming a flight navigator: in one week's time he will leave for a manned mission to Titan (the 14th moon of Saturn), based on his flight plan. All is right in his world until the murder of one of Gattaca's managing directors. A stray hair of Vincent's, found near the body, leads the police to believe him to be a suspect. But they are looking for Vincent and not Jerome. As long as he can keep his real identity a secret, his future is safe.

It becomes quickly clear that although GATTACA has a ticking clock scenario, a murder mystery (which is resolved in an offhand way, and neither we or the film cared about the outcome anyway), a burgeoning romance between Hawke and Uma Thurman and a sci-fi setting, the provocative issues raised are the real heart of the film. When does it become ethically questionable to have 'a helping hand' from science in order to have a better career or life? Vincent's potentially weak heart and myopia DO make him a poor choice for a flight navigator. Medical science could help that. As the opening quotes ponder, is it unGodly or Godly to tamper with nature? Niccol would probably argue that it is our strengths and weaknesses that make us human. Certainly Vincent is proof of the power of the human heart and human willpower. He manages to rise so high because he wants it so much and is willing to suffer and endure whatever he has to do to succeed. (He never saves 'anything for the swim back.') Vincent makes a very interesting contrast to Jerome. Jerome was born with perfect DNA which enabled him to become one of the elite. But he gave up on life once he had a major setback. Vincent was BORN with a major setback, and will never give up. All the characters in the movie (apart from the embittered and slyly amusing Jude Law and seasoned cop Alan Arkin) are cold, arrogant and unemotional. There is little humanity in Gattaca. Ironically, it takes the most basic of human emotions (rage) to bring things crashing down.

GATTACA is a very impressive debut for Niccol, and one that he has unfortunately not yet managed to top or equal (it would have been interesting to see him direct his script for THE TRUMAN SHOW). It's all in the control of his material and in his choices. The cold but beautiful world of Gattaca is complemented by the stately, classical Michael Nyman score. The score complements the beauty of Uma Thurman, who has never looked so ravishing. Thurman, Hawke, Law and Loren Dean (as the head cop) bring youth and energy to what could have become a cerebral, dull, lifeless movie in lesser hands. Thurman doesn't really have much of a role, and is not used to the best of her talents. Hawke is perfect casting as Vincent: his persona gives off the vibe of a very driven, quiet, intelligent man determined to make his path his way. Which is how Hawke's career has panned out. he has mostly managed to make the kinds of films he wants to make. Jude Law has one of his best early roles as Jerome, and bravely plays a disabled, sickly, dark character. His scenes opposite Hawke bring out the best in each other (Law is if anything a generous actor). They make an appealingly odd couple. Law's Oscar for THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (1999) was only three years away. Alan Arkin and Ernest Borgnine (in a cameo as Gattaca's head cleaner) also bring humanity and humour to the film. American author Gore Vidal is an interesting choice as Gattaca's flight director, but he fits because the film is like him, literary and political to the bone.

If the film has flaws, it would be elements of the ending. Having Loren Dean's cop be Hawke's brother seems very contrived and pat. One could argue that the flashbacks to Vincent beating his 'valid' brother at swimming set it all up, but frankly, the flashbacks work and serve a purpose (they prove that the human spirit can be stronger than genetics and give Vincent the motivation to think he can succeed) without leading to the ending. The romance between Hawke and Thurman is not strictly necessary and feels like a commercial requirement rather than a plot one. But it doesn't mar the film, and Vincent's victory needs a character to whom his wisdom can be passed on to. Thurman's Irene is (like Vincent) suffering from a heart problem that means she will never make it off the planet. If Vincent can do it, she can. Xander Berkeley's doctor knowing all along that Vincent was an 'invalid' and protecting him at the end is unexpectedly sweet. The heart of Gattaca is cold, but the heart of the film isn't, so it's appropriate. Jerome's suicide is poignant. Vincent has been told he is not going to live long but fights to realise his dreams. His courage gives Jerome the courage to accept that he doesn't want to live. In the world he lives, not being perfect makes for a useless life. He will like Vincent transcend to the heavens, but he will do so with his life. His injury has permanently damaged his psyche and spirit, whereas Vincent is capable of transcending his inherently damaged body via his psyche and spirit. As with THE TRUMAN SHOW, GATTACA has a beautifully poignant, bittersweet and ambiguous ending (will Vincent be able to evade detection forever?).

GATTACA is a beautifully constructed, intelligent slice of science fiction whose ideas and questions linger long after the credits roll. Films such as MINORITY REPORT (2002) and THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011) would seem to owe a debt to a fellow SF/ Noir/ chase film of ideas and of heart. It's also a film that seems prescient, for it's ethical questions are still being asked in the scientific community to this day. The film has lasted because it's a film of quality, because it's not a spectacle or a blockbuster, and because it's a film which takes it's time to tell a story and create a convincing alternate world not too dissimilar to our own in many respects. It's an essential movie.

NB. Hawke and Thurman fell in love on set and were married from 1998 to 2004, having two children. They also collaborated on TAPE (2001) and CHELSEA WALLS (2001, Thurman acted; Hawke directed). Hawke would later star in Niccol's LORD OF WAR (2005). GATTACA was produced by Danny de Vito's Jersey Films. The title of the film is composed of the letters utilised to label the nucleotide bases of DNA: Guanine, Adenine, Thymine and Cytosine. Jerome's stairs have a DNA-like helical structure. The movie was filmed as 'The Eighth Day', but a Belgian film with the same title had already been released (in 1996) by the time the movie completed shooting. The name of the facility where Vincent and Irene work supplied the final title.

AVAILABILITY: GATTACA is available on DVD (Region 1 and 2) and Bluray (Region A and B) in a Special Edition featuring a retrospective documentary, a vintage featurette, a doco on genetic research and a deleted scene and outtake.


'Gattaca': IMDB entry. Read it here.
'Gattaca': Wikipedia entry. Read it here.

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. Paul writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. An aspiring novelist, short story writer and screenwriter, he has until now mainly written about film for his own pleasure, various blogs and for so far unpublished projects. Paul is also preparing his own short film, and has at least three writing projects in various states of completion.

VANISHING POINT (Richard C. Sarafian, 1971)

by Paul Rowlands

Barry Newman, Charlotte Rampling (UK Version only), Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger, Victoria Medlin, Timothy Scott, Gilda Texter, Anthony James, Arthur Malet, Karl Swenson, Severn Darden, John Amos. 99 minutes. (UK Version: 106 minutes.) point
n. 1. the point at which receding parallel lines viewed in perspective appear to converge.
2. [in sing.] the point at which something that has been growing smaller or increasingly faint disappears altogether: custody fees have dropped close to the vanishing point. (From The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English, 2009. )

'The last beautiful free soul on this planet'. 'Super Soul' (Cleavon Little), VANISHING POINT.

'The best way, to my knowledge, to get away is to root right in where you are'. Snake wrangler (Dean Jagger) to Kowalski (Barry Newman) in VANISHING POINT.

VANISHING POINT is an existential, amphetamine-fuelled road movie/ chase movie with a disenchanted, morbid mindset. Despite being very much an early '70s movie, it's a film that has continued for generations to speak to those with an interest in existentialism, fast cars, the fallout of '60s idealism and erm, dope. it's one of the all-time great cult films.

Barry Newman (FEAR IS THE KEY, 1972) stars as Kowalski. Through flashbacks we learn that he was a decorated Vietnam veteran, whose life started to freefall after being busted out of the police force (he was a twice promoted Detective) for ratting on a partner with a penchant for sexually abusing women. (The partner is played by Cassavetes regular Val Avery.) He then became a demolition derby driver and a motorcycle racer, giving up after two accidents. After his girlfriend (Victoria Medlin) dies in a surfing accident, he turns his back on society and develops an obsession with dying.

Kowalski becomes a car delivery driver, a job which suits his adrenaline junkie personality. He often takes 'speed' to keep him going and so he can meet his deadlines. He accepts a job in Denver to deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger to San Francisco, and we eventually learn that although he has a large window to deliver the car, he has set himself an impossible deadline, ensuring that the police will be on his tail across three states. He is helped in his efforts to elude the police by 'Super Soul' (Cleavon Little), a blind black DJ who gives him information over his radio show. (We learn of Kowalski's 'deathwish' in the opening chase scene from the climax, where he drives towards a police road block. it turns out that this is actually the last scene of the movie.)

VANISHING POINT is a lament for the dying embers of the counterculture movement, as now the characters one meets on the road are hostile (the gay hitchhiking couple who try to steal his car) or selfish and cynical (Severn Darden's 'Reverend'). To find good people (Dean Jagger's snake wrangler old timer, Timothy Scott's generous and good-hearted hippy, Gilda Texter's nude motorcycle rider), one has to literally look in the desert, away from civilization. Such people have either been pushed out of mainstream society or rejected it. (A pre-climax scene featuring Charlotte Rampling as a hitchhiker who connects with Kowalski and gives him marijuana feels like a narcotic hallucination. The scene only appears in UK prints because the studio felt audiences would find it confusing.)

It's also a chase movie, a genre that reached it's commercial apex with SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT six years later. The open road signifies freedom of spirit and the power of imagination. And the irresistible lure of hauling ass. To Americans, with their long highways, mountain ranges and panoramic vistas (captured beautifully in this film by cinematographer John A. Alonzo), it has an extra special pull. Since EASY RIDER (1969) the open road was perfect in every way but one: hauling ass or just being on the road meant cops would be on your tail, or hostile 'natives'.

The film isn't subtle (or sophisticated) in what it's trying to say. The flashbacks make it crystal clear that Kowalski is meant to represent The Man who turned his back on The System but has now realised that The System is never going to go away and always prevails. He was a soldier, decorated for bravery, and a twice promoted cop. But The System protects it's own and exploits the innocent, and it rejected and outcasted him when he tried to stand up for what is right. After nearly dying in two accidents and losing the woman he loves (a woman who enjoys marijuana and whom as a cop he really should stay clear of), he is ready to give up on living. Despite it's status as an action or chase film, VANISHING POINT is quite a sad film. It's message is that the '60s is over, and the dream is dead. Dean Jagger's old timer tells him that the best way to survive is 'to root right in where you are' (he's talking about hiding from the police in the desert but it's obviously supposed to work on two levels, like a lot of the dialogue) or to live in your head. But it's too late for Kowalski. The desert is simply a resting place before he makes his final charge towards death (interrupted again by his brief dalliance with Rampling in the UK version).

VANISHING POINT is an interesting companion piece to TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, and one could easily surmise that either one could have influenced the other, had they not been released four months apart in the US. (VANISHING POINT came out in March, TWO-LANE in July.) Their similarities merely indicate that during the few years that followed EASY RIDER, there was something in the air (discontent, sadness, disillusionment) that translated to the films being made. 1971 is a watershed year in film history: these two films and others like ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, DIRTY HARRY, STRAW DOGS, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and THE FRENCH CONNECTION show that the '60s dream of a freer, uninhibited society has failed, to be replaced with hostility, lawlessness, violence, alienation, the reality of drug addiction, and the development of narcotics as a lucrative trade.

Both VANISHING POINT and TWO-LANE are existentialist road movies, concerning characters obsessed with perfection and in love with constant motion. Both have characters who love to test themselves by racing the clock across the highways of the country. And both share apocalyptic endings (although the fate of James Taylor's Driver is ambiguous). One has to admit that TWO-LANE is the deeper and more resonant film, and VANISHING POINT at times is close to being laughable. The oddball characters can be homophobically presented (the camp gay hitchhikers), a little unbelievable (the nude female motorcyclist) and excessive (Cleavon Little's blind black DJ, who is prone to making statements like Kowalski being 'the last beautiful free soul on this planet'). The flashbacks that represent Kowalski's memories of his time with his pot-smoking surfer gal (Victoria Medlin) are embarassingly trite with over-laden strings and soft-focus photography. (And her death is more funny than tragic, the way it is randomly presented.) The film overdoes it's attempts to make Kowalski a figure with deep meaning. His backstory is so obviously stacked up to make him a mythic figure that he's not a believable character. He's not someone anyone could relate to. Whereas TWO-LANE was at it's best in it's quiet moments, VANISHING POINT is at it's best when the film is moving: the beautiful scenery, the cops giving endless chase, the the effervescent gospel/ funk/ soul/ folk soundtrack, and Cleavon Little's enjoyably exuberant performance. It has a very real sadness in it's heart, and although an artistic flourish like the nude motorcycle rider may seem unbelievable and self-indulgent, it's also memorable and resonant. Kowalski (and the film) obviously see her spirit and non-conformity as something that represents a bygone past (hence her exiling into the desert). The society that he is running from would respond to her by exploiting her. VANISHING POINT may not seem very real at times, but it's coming from a very real place and it's one of the reasons it has managed to hold up across the years.

The film's climax is beautifully ambiguous. Is Kowalski consciously committing suicide by driving into the roadblock with a smile on his face? Or is that little shaft of sunlight between the two bulldozers meant to represent a hole he was convinced he could get through? My own interpretation is that Kowalski wasn't trying to kill himself. He no longer cared about living and saw death as merely another step in his existence. The shaft of light was a hole that would either prolong his life on his earth or take him to his next life. (It's also worth noting that Kowalski was full of amphetamines at this point!) Newman believes that Kowalski thought he could make it through, whereas director Richard C. Sarafian (whose career highpoint this was) supports my interpretation.Perhaps Kowalski's final act represents him following the snake wrangler's advice to 'root right in where you are'. When he dies, his spirit has not been broken by The Man (represented by the police) because he is living in his own head and being true to himself. He is fully prepared to accept the consequences of his actions.

VANISHING POINT's cult was revived in 1997 when Scottish alt rock act Primal Scream released their album of the same name. Frontman Bobby Gillespie described it as 'an anarcho-syndicalist speedfreak road movie record', and explained that 'The music in the film is hippy music, so we thought, 'Why not record some music that really reflects the mood of the film?' It's always been a favourite of the band, we love the air of paranoia and speed- freak righteousness. It's impossible to get hold of now, which is great! It's a pure underground film, rammed with claustrophobia.' (Four years later, the track 'Breakdown' by Guns n Roses, from 'Use Your Illusion II', sampled a line from the movie featuring Cleavon Little.) The same year also saw the release of a TV movie remake starring Viggo Mortensen that effectively stripped away what made the film so interesting. The star of the original film, Barry Newman, found himself being sought out by Steven Soderbergh for an important supporting role in his late-60s/ early 70s homage thriller THE LIMEY (1999).

In 1994 the Keanu Reeves action movie SPEED (coincidentally also the name of Kowalski's drug of choice in VANISHING POINT) was released. What made the film chiefly so enjoyable was the purity of it's premise, which ensured that the film needed to keep moving. It reflected the purity of 'speed', the thrill of constantly moving at a high speed. It was VANISHING POINT without the existentialism, morbidity and amphetamines in it's veins. In 2007, Quentin Tarantino (a fan of the movie) featured the same 1970 white supercharged Dodge Challenger in the second half of DEATH PROOF and had characters namecheck the title of the film. VANISHING POINT's status as an essential cult film was cemented right there and then.

A groovy soundtrack, beautiful photography, oddball characters. An ambiguous, apocalyptic ending. A sad, morbid snapshot of the end of an idealistic era. The thrill of high speed and constant motion. Root right in where you are and check out one of the most entertaining, memorable cult films ever made. Amphetamines optional.

NB. Richard C. Sarafian originally wanted a pre-FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) Gene Hackman for Kowalski, but the studio (Fox) insisted upon Barry Newman. Kowalski was based on twpo separate true stories: a disgraced police officer, and a high speed pursuit that ended with the death of the man being pursued when he drove into a roadblock. The character of 'Super Soul' was originally named 'Super Spic' and was based on exuberant DJ 'The Big Bopper', who died in the same plane crash that claimed the life of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Guillermo Cain (co-writer of the film alongside an uncredited Barry Hall, working from an outline from Malcolm Hart is a pseudonym for Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante. He also wrote WONDERWALL (1968), the film that provided the title for Oasis's 1995 hit single. The film was scored by George Harrison. The band that appears in the film is Delaney, Bonnie and Friends, and Rita Coolidge (ex-wife of Kris Kristofferson) can be seen as one of it's members.

AVAILABILITY: The R1 DVD and Region A Bluray feature both versions of the film, and an audio commentary by Sarafian (plus the trailer and TV spots). The R2 DVD release is barebones and only includes the US version (ironically!).


'Cult Movies 2' by Danny Peary, Dell, 1983. (Review of the film.)
'Vanishing Point': Audio commentary on the Region 1 DVD/ Region A Bluray.
'Vanishing Point': Wikipedia entry. Read it here:

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. Paul writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. An aspiring novelist, short story writer and screenwriter, he has until now mainly written about film for his own pleasure, various blogs and for so far unpublished projects.

COCKFIGHTER (Monte Hellman, 1974)

by Paul Rowlands

Starring: Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard B. Shull, Laurie Bird, Ed Begley Jr, Troy Donahue, Warren Finnerty, Robert Earl Jones, Patricia Pearcy, Steve Railsback, Charles Willeford. 83 minutes (theatrical version with 'Cockfighter' title).

'I couldn't really get the script that I's my least favourite of my movies, with the exception of BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE (1959)...I like the authenticity of that kind of milieu; I think as a documentary about the 'sport' of cockfighting, it works fairly well...I was never really happy with it; it just didn't work for me, basically because of the script.' Monte Hellman, 'Film Talk: Directors at Work', interviews by Wheeler Winston Dixon, Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Monte Hellman might just be the greatest least-known director in the world. Even his most famous film, the seminal road movie TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971) was out of circulation for many years. One of the great tragedies of cinema is that he hasn't made as many films as he should have, always struggling to get films financed, to make them the way he wants, to have them released in the cuts he prefers, and to have them even widely seen. Probably the greatest of his films, alongside TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is COCKFIGHTER. And yet it's a film even Hellman is ambivalent about, and is now out of circulation again (at least in decent prints).

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP won some impressive reviews upon it's release. It eventually became a cult film, and is now considered to be one of the key road movies, and key films of the '70s. But it had no immediate impact on Hellman's career, and the director decided to never turn down work. He came to COCKFIGHTER after a very bad experience on the Hong Kong action thriller SHATTER (1974), where he was fired for getting behind schedule. Hellman maintains it is more likely he was fired because of producer Michael Carreras's ambition to take over the film, and that he got behind schedule because The Shaw Brothers had crews on multiple films working on rotating 24 hour shifts, and they would always turn up for work late and exhausted. It also has to be noted that, although at his own request he is uncredited as director, 2/3 of the footage in the released version is his, and when Carreras took over, it took him five months to finish, after replacing Hellman three weeks into a five week schedule.

Roger Corman offered him COCKFIGHTER almost as soon as he returned to the US. Hellman already had a work history with him. Like Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola et al, Hellman began his career with Corman, working as a director and in various other capacities. Two of his best films, the extraordinary Westerns THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (shot back to back in 1965), were financed by Corman. COCKFIGHTER would be their final collaboration.

The film boasts Warren Oates's greatest performance, and that is really saying something. He was one of the greatest actors to emerge from the '60s, and made four films apiece with both Hellman and Sam Peckinpah. He died from a heart attack in 1983. His character in COCKFIGHTER could be seen as as a humorous reversal of his previous Hellman character: GTO in TWO-LANE BLACKTOP. GTO was a talkative, restless man; Frank Mansfield is silent throughout the film (we hear him speak in flashbacks and in the final scene). If there was ever an actor who could remain charismatic and fascinating despite being silent, it's Oates. Just through a squint, a stare, a smile or a grimace, Oates could express a thousand words. Oates gives Frank an inner life, a soul, and it's one of the great performances of the decade.

Hellman is a self-confessed control freak, editing and rewriting all of his films, and never completely happy with his achievements. One can easily imagine him identifying with Frank's perfectionism, outsider status and restlessness. Frank is a man who lost his chance to be acknowledged as the best cockfighter in the business through his loud-mouthedness and ego. He has taken a vow of silence until he makes it to the top. That kind of over the top sacrifice is worthy of respect, but also ridicule too (Hellman is much more of a pragmatist). In another film, the director would have made much more of a voluntarily mute character. Indeed, it could be a subject that might have interested Antonioni, who was very interested in alienation and miscommunication. But, amusingly, Frank's silence never represents a problem in the world he moves in, where a grunt, a nod or a signature is all you need, and everyone is in their own world anyway. (It makes you wonder how important verbal communication is at all.) Frank is also a perfect Hellman character because Hellman is primarily a storyteller who places more importance on the visual and on the unsaid. The characters in TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, for example, speak volumes to each other, but it's all things never said and expressed through facial expressions and body gestures.

COCKFIGHTER is a fascinating film because of what Hellman brought to it, perfectly illustrating his sensitivity and taste as a filmmaker. As was his wont, Hellman rewrote the script (written by the 1962 book's author, Charles Willeford, who also appears in the film as Judge Ed Middleton), this time with Earl Mac Rauch (NEW YORK, NEW YORK, 1977). He was happy with the progress they were making, but Corman soon pulled the plug on Rauch's involvement (Hellman believes he didn't want his 'baby' taken away from him). Hellman and Rauch's work went uncredited. Corman was clearly hoping for some visceral, exploitative thrills from the cockfighting scenes, but quickly learned that Hellman didn't share his vision. Scouting locations for a cockfight scene, Corman got excited by the atmosphere at a particular venue and laid down his bet. His director, however, was in the car park, nowhere to be seen. Hellman: 'I just had this gut reaction to seeing an animal killed, which really upset me tremendously. I wanted to convey that to an audience.' Corman: '...there goes my cockfighting picture. The director hates cockfighting.'

Hellman remains ambivalent about COCKFIGHTER: 'I think if we could have gotten more scenes like the ending and like the scene by the river and the scene on the porch, which are three of the things Rauch (Earl Mac Rauch, the co-writer) contributed to, I think we could have had more understanding of Warren's character and of some of the other characters and I think it could have been a better picture.' He is absolutely right in identifying the most resonant and memorable scenes of the picture, but his own perfectionism is getting the better of him. Such scenes are enough to make a great film. They flesh out and humanise the character of Frank: his capacity for love and his fear of domesticity. The river scene is extraordinarily erotic and tender, and had it not appeared in a 'B' movie, would be seen as a memorable moment in '70s cinema. Alongside, that is, the porch scene where like Cassavetes, Hellman is able to suddenly change mood and not completely jar the viewer. As Brad Stevens has noted, he conveys information about the character via filming techniques (shooting Frank and Mary Elizabeth, played by Patricia Peary, through the screen door informs us that Frank has no place inside a domestic situation) and action (Frank suddenly has energy once he is outside the house, informing us of his restless nature). It's beautiful filmmaking of the kind Terrence Malick would be proud of (note that Earl Mac Rauch was in fact a Malick protege).

The final scene is wonderfully ambiguous. Mary Elizabeth has finally seen a cockfight and is appalled. (Hellman made sure that Patricia Peary never saw a cockfight until she watched Frank's cockfight, ensuring her reaction was perfectly real.) She tells Frank he has no heart and seemingly breaks up with him. And yet this is the moment Frank chooses to speak. (In the book, Frank regains his voice before the final scene.) He turns to his friend (Richard B. Shull) and smilingly says 'She loves me, Omar.' It should be an infuriating moment, but it isn't. With COCKFIGHTER, Hellman comes very close to capturing the ambiguity and often seemingly illogical nature of real life. Frank may be an ambiguous man, but many people are. Only he knows what he means by the line, and the line allows the audience to personalise their viewing experience. It can mean whatever want you mean. My own interpretation is that after losing his chance to win the Cockfighter of the Year Award (in the flashback) and losing his mobile home, girlfriend (TWO-LANE BLACKTOP's Laurie Bird) and prize cock in the opening scenes, he felt he wasn't worthy of Mary Elizabeth. He felt ashamed and appalled with himself. Frank also realises that until Mary Elizabeth can reconcile the man she thinks she knows, with the man who also loves cockfighting, and accept him fully, they cannot have a future. Perhaps he has convinced himself that he can accept a domestic, married life now he has won the award and regained his self-respect. In this interpretation, 'she loves me' can mean that there is at least hope for them. She has seen a cockfight and he sees her emotion over the experience as confirming her love for him. But, this is only one interpretation! (It's interesting that in the book, the final scene has Frank and Mary Elizabeth break up, and Frank feel relieved and happy about it.)

Another extraordinary element of the film, which Hellman omits to note as a strength, is it's possible status as a dream film. Frank would seem to be an existentialist character, yet he is living in the past. His girlfriend in the opening scenes (Laurie Bird) tells him he talks in his sleep, indicating that something in his dreams or memories are troubling him, and we see from a flashback, set in a hotel room, how he lost his chance to take a shot at the Cockfighter of the Year title the previous year: he made a drunken, egotistical bet against his prize cock and Harry Dean Stanton's, and lost. After this initial flashback, the movie never loses it's dreamlike status, and the porch and river scenes are quite dream-like. The scene where the cockfighters have their money robbed seems like a dream initially and indeed, as Brad Stevens noted, it could be. Regardless, the dreamy feel of the film (appropriate for a film concerning a dreamer like Frank), especially when contrasted with the documentary style and visceral violence of the cockfighting scenes, makes for a very unique mood and feel.

An amusing thought is that Frank resembles the creatures he trains and fights. Like Frank, the cocks will do anything to survive and win, and they do so without making even a noise (Frank identifies this as something he respects about them in the opening narration). Many of the cocks in the movie end up literally losing their heads - whereas the picture of Frank taken by a fan is from the neck down. Mary Elizabeth tells Frank in their last scene, 'I think that bird had more of a heart than you will ever have'. Frank respects them because he is very much aware of his own lack of heart. One possible interpretation is that Frank, after losing his prize cock in the flashback, simply decided to emulate one and dedicate his life to becoming the victor, all without making a noise.

Hellman was a gun-for-hire on COCKFIGHTER and like fellow Corman protege Coppola with THE GODFATHER (1972), he was interested not so much as in the subject matter but with the themes that he could identify with and personalise. Despite the title of the film, it's lurid world and the sometimes bloody cockfighting scenes, Hellman made a quiet, understated, low-key character study about the search for perfection in one's profession, and the quest to be fully accepted, warts and all, by the one you love. (Any scenes of violence are not Hellman's and were mostly directed by Lewis Teague, later the director of 1980's ALLIGATOR, and added to the film at Corman's insistence. Teague edited ALL the cockfighting scenes, indicating Hellman's disinterest in them, while Hellman edited the rest of the film uncredited. )

The director described the film as 'at least 50% documentary', and if the subcultural world of cockfighting seems very real, it's because when it came to scenes set in that world, Hellman simply filmed what he saw with mostly non-actors as the cockfighters. His penchant for not judging the people or milieu he is filming is an essential component of his approach as a filmmaker. Compare this to Alexander Payne (ABOUT SCHMIDT, 2002) or Todd Solondz (HAPPINESS, 1998), who frequently seem as though they are looking down upon and laughing at their characters. Despite his disgust for cockfighting, he is fully ready to accept the people who practice the sport for what they are and to learn from the characters as he encounters them. And unlike Mary Elizabeth, Hellman CAN accept Frank (and the world of cockfighting) warts and all. Frank is an interesting and worthy man even though the sport he practices to perfection is reprehensible. Whereas Melville describes the world that LE SAMOURAI (1967) lives in as soulless and cold, and only redeemed by the honorability of the titular character, Hellman finds warmth and humanity in the various characters that populate the sport. Perhaps the world of cockfighting represents a microcosm of the human soul: we strive for perfection and some of us believe we are perfect or at least unique, and yet our very souls are imperfect, eg. our lust for blood.

Hellman's cut played in Georgia, where the film was made (in Flannery O'Connor's hometown), and didn't do well. Obviously, audiences were expecting the kind of film Corman wanted to make. Corman hired Joe Dante (GREMLINS, 1984) to recut the movie, and Corman had him insert sex and violence footage from two other of his productions as dream sequences. The movie was retitled BORN TO KILL, but was also known as GAMBLIN' MAN and WILD DRIFTER. Hellman's cut has survived as the most screened cut, only because TV stations liked his cut better.

Hellman made a hugely impressive return to filmmaking (after 21 years) with the enigmatic mystery thriller ROAD TO NOWHERE (2010), which premiered at the Venice Film Festival around the time he turned 78. It is high time for his ouevre to be rereleased and reassessed. He deserves to be more widely known and respected, and his films more widely seen and readily available. COCKFIGHTER is one of his signature works, and far far better than it's 'B' movie status and the lurid, sensationalist thrills on offer that the title might suggest.

NB. Charles Willeford's book was a paperback original in 1962, but was republished in hardcover a decade later in a slightly rewritten edition. Willeford claims he loosely based the book on Homer's 'The Odyssey' (circa end of 8 BC). Another one of his novels has been filmed: THE WOMAN CHASER (1999). Roger Corman hated the final line, 'She loves me, Omar', written by Hellman, and threw the script against the wall in protest! The two Corman productions featured in the recut of the film were NIGHT CALL NURSES (1972, directed by Jonathan Kaplan; THE ACCUSED, 1988) and PRIVATE DUTY NURSES (1971, directed by George Armitage, who would adapt Charles Willeford's MIAMI BLUES in 1990).

AVAILABILITY: The R1 Anchor Bay edition features an anamorphically enhanced, good looking print (preserving the fantastic Nestor Almendros photography), a Hellman/ Steven Gaydos commentary (Gaydos is a long-time collaborator of Hellman's) and a near hour length documentary on Warren Oates. Sadly, it is out of print and something of a collector's item. It's worth tracking down because other editions out there are usually full screen, sourced from raggedy looking prints and lacking in extras. The film has never been widely seen in the UK, and only at a few film festivals along the years. Because the cockfighting scenes certainly constitute animal cruelty and contravene certain laws, the film has never even been submitted to the BBFC.

'Charles Willeford': Wikipedia entry. Read it here:
'Cockfighter': Audio commentary on the R1 Anchor Bay DVD.
'Cockfighter': Wikipedia entry. Read it here:
'Film Talk: Directors at Work', interviews by Wheeler Winston Dixon, Rutgers University Press, 2007.
'Two-Lane Blacktop': Audio commentary and special features on the Criterion R1 DVD.
'Monte Hellman: His Life and Films' by Brad Stevens, McFarland and Co. Inc, 2003. (An excellent resource and assessment of Hellman's films. Strongly recommended. Buy it here:

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. Paul writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. An aspiring novelist, short story writer and screenwriter, he has until now mainly written about film for his own pleasure, various blogs and for so far unpublished projects.

THE GAMBLER (Karel Reisz, 1974)

James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton Morris Carnovsky, Jacqueline Brookes, Burt Young, Carl W. Crudup, Vic Tayback, Antonio Fargas, James Woods, M. Emmet Walsh. 111 minutes.

'I'm not going to lose it. I'm going to gamble it.' Alex Freed (James Caan) in THE GAMBLER.

THE GAMBLER (inspired by Dostoyevsky's 1867 novella of the same name) was unforgivably forgotten about until the August 2011 announcement of a remake, which was to have reunited THE DEPARTED (2006)'s Martin Scorsese, Leonardo Di Caprio and writer William Monahan. (In the end, Mark Wahlberg played the title role, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES' Rupert Wyatt directed, and the film was released in 2014. ) It's unforgivable because the film is one of the finest ever made about the gambling compulsion (Robert Altman's superb CALIFORNIA SPLIT also came out the same year), boasts James Caan's most multi-faceted performance, and is one of the most under-rated films of the '70s.

Axel Freed (Caan) is an absolute gambling junkie. Gambling all night in what appears to be someone's residence, we watch him get himself deeper and deeper into a hole, until he ends up owing Mafia gangsters $44,000. (With the title credits against a black screen, the second sentence in the movie is Caan exclaiming 'You cunt!', immediately signifying that this is going to be an edgy, adult ride and not a stuffy modern day Dostoyevsky adaptation.) It only looks like it takes a few minutes for Freed's life to fall apart, but we see in flashbacks  that it actually took longer. As Freed gets into his car and leaves, Jerry Fielding's quiet arrangement of Gustav Mahler's 'Symphony No.1' swells up quietly on the soundtrack. It's as if it's there to acknowledge something that the understated filmmaking hasn't: the cycle of tragedy has begun, and all we can do is sit back and watch. Mahler's work is forever synonymous with 'The Planets'. Maybe the music is there to tell us that one man's tragedy is as important as anything else in the world.

Minutes after losing the money, Freed is challenging black teenagers on the street that he can beat them at basketball. He loses. The next scene takes the film into a new sphere. An unshaven, bedraggled Freed goes straight to work and we are very surprised to see that he is a New York literature professor. We watch him discuss Dostoyevsky's idea of the power of 'will' over 'reason' (from 'Notes from Underground', 1864) with his students. It's interesting that in the University lecture scenes, we are directed to believe that Spencer (Carl W. Crudup), Freed's basketball star student, simply doesn't 'get' Dostoyevsky (nor George Washington's character). We soon learn that Freed is simply using a literary giant's words to give credence and authority to his gambling addiction. Spencer is an important character because he represents idealism (youth) and purity (his love of the game), and probably Freed's younger self. Freed's self-destruction is finalised when he is forced to ask Spencer to shave points off a game, and be in the hands of the Mob for good. He has corrupted and destroyed another man (and destroyed idealism and purity), and someone who he was meant to be a mentor figure for. (The whistling white noise on the soundtrack drowning out the cheers of the basketball fans is a very effective signifier of Freed's mindset at that very moment. He has won nothing, but lost everything, and he's not even hearing the audience.)

The drama of the film is now set up. It concerns Freed desperately trying to find the money he owes, and flitting between two very contrasting worlds: the world of the rich, entitled and educated (huge houses, lavish parties, tennis clubs and impromptu swims) and the world of the degenerate gambler (low-level, sandwich-eating, coffee-drinking gangsters, assorted odd and dangerous characters). One quality of the film that sets it apart is that it doesn't really have a plot to speak of. Another writer or director would have ratcheted up the tension and had a ticking clock scenario while Freed tries to get the money. (It IS there in the final basketball scene.) But there's an air of doomed fate about the movie instead, and this is a film totally led by it's lead character. (The final scene, in which Freed walks into a Harlem bar to basically get himself killed, is foreshadowed by a brief shot of pimp Antonio Fargas, Huggy Bear in TV's 'Starsky and Hutch' no less. As Freed drives away from the opening gambling scene, Fargas is to the right of the frame in his own car.) There is no 'win' for Freed. If he gets the money, he will have done so by severely inconveniencing and disappointing his family. The air of doomed fate becomes a huge dark cloud halfway through when the extent of Freed's addiction becomes crystal clear. Even though his mother has given him the money to pay back the loan sharks, he inexplicably uses the money to make further bets. It's clear now that gambling represents Axel's self-destructive personality and nothing intellectual. Like Nicolas Cage in LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995), he is on a one-way trip to destroy himself, and unfortunately all those who care for him too (including his mother, played by Jacqueline Brookes, and his beautiful girlfriend, played by Lauren Hutton). He's a fascinating and curious man (or as the UK subtitle of director Karel Reisz's 1966 film MORGAN goes - he's 'a suitable case for treatment'). Freed can actually articulate what draws him to gambling: 'I like the uncertainty of it. I like the threat of losing. And the idea that I could lose but that somehow I won't, because I don't want to.' He has taken his belief that simple willpower can sometimes create a different fate and applied it to the gambling world. He seems fully conscious of his actions. The film has nothing good to say about gambling: addicts are parasites and the people who make money off them are criminals. It's an exciting activity and an exciting world, but eventually, it leads to ruin.

THE GAMBLER has great authenticity because it is based on writer James Toback (FINGERS, 1978)'s actual experiences as a gambler. After graduating from Harvard, he taught literature and writing at CCNY, alongside the likes of Joseph Heller and William S. Burroughs, and also wrote articles and critical pieces for various high profile newspapers and magazines. But, as he says 'Most of all, I gambled - recklessly, obsessively and secretly. It was a rich, exciting double life with heavy doses of sexual adventurism thrown in for good measure.'

Toback originally intended the story to take the form of a novel, but quickly realised it's cinematic potential. Dostoyevsky's novella (inspired by his addiction to roulette) had already inspired Sergei Prokofiev's 1916 opera and the 1949 movie THE GREAT SINNER (starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner). (Like Akira Kurosawa's THE IDIOT/ HAKUCHI, 1951,Toback's script takes a Dostoyevsky work and transports it to a different time and place.) Caan's character's name, Axel, is a nod to the novella's lead character, Alexei Ivanovich. (His fee for the original movie was close to what Caan lost in the film: $50,000.)

During the making of the film, Caan was battling his own addiction to cocaine (in one scene he turns down a snort). Screenwriter James Toback revealed that he pushed for a pre-MEAN STREETS Robert De Niro, but Reisz absolutely refused to cast him. (TAXI DRIVER's Peter Boyle originally wanted the role.) Freed is a fully rounded character who is compelling to watch. He's believable as the educated, charming, slightly arrogant man of wealth who also needs to gamble and have the girlfriend with supermodel looks. The rage that Caan can unleash at any moment is used for those scenes when Freed's convictions about his winning streaks are proved wrong and when things are generally not going his way. But Freed is no Sonny Corleone, no tough guy. He can get along with low-level Mafiosi like Paul Sorvino (he'd play a high-level Mafiosi in Scorsese's GOODFELLAS, 1990) and Burt Young (ROCKY, 1976), but he can't fight them on their level. Witness how appalled he is by Burt Young breaking the arms of a guy who has failed to pay up on time, and wrecking his apartment. Through Caan's acting we get to see all the various emotions inherent in the gambling experience: the sheer high of betting, the thrill of winning; the fear, panic and vulnerability of losing and not being able to cover one's losses. THE GAMBLER shows what a subtle, instinctive actor Caan can be, and that he wasn't scared of appearing vulnerable and weak in a movie, despite his macho image. (The scene where he has to ask his mother for $10, 000 is painful to watch because Caan makes it so real, and easy to empathise with.) It's his most multi-faceted performance: charming, relaxed and witty; intellectual and soulful; arrogant and nasty; desperate, scared and vulnerable. Caan was noninated for a Golden Globe for his performance.

Lauren Hutton (AMERICAN GIGOLO, 1980) is indeed very beautiful but her character is very thin, and her performance pretty one-note. One can't see why Caan's character would have a relationship with her. Perhaps it is meant to be one more incongruous element of his character. We understand why she is attracted to him - she is attracted to strong, self-destructive men. And we understand why the character exists - she is there to introduce the backstory of her ex (Eugene), a degenerate gambler who ended up getting physically maimed and destroyed by his addiction. He is the man that Freed already is and doesn't realise. The man all heavy gamblers eventually become. But it would have been more dramatically interesting to have Freed's girlfriend be more stronger and challenhe him more, instead of just heavy-handedly signify to the audience the direction of Freed's destiny. 

Paul Sorvino is excellent as 'Hips', Freed's main contact in the gambling world. Sorvino has done a lot of superb work in his career, but it's likely that he won the role of Paulie in GOODFELLAS (1990) because of his work here. Both men are friendly, relaxed, benevolent figures who speak plainly, and at one point have to turn their backs on their friends when they are betrayed. Morris Carnovsky is memorable as Freed's self-made millionaire grandfather, A.R. Lowenthal, the man Freed misreads and aims to be. He believes Lowenthal did anything he could to to achieve success, being 'a killer' and 'a king' and having 'wit, balls' and 'will'. He sees him as a living embodiment of what 'will' over 'reason' can do. But he is forgetting the importance of being the man of 'character and virtue' Lowenthal believes Freed to be. He also doesn't realise that Lowenthal always strived to be 'as honest as any man with great responsibility could be'. Carnovsky was an accomplished stage actor who was forced to abandon his movie career after being named as a Communist in the McCarthy witch hunts. Jacqueline Brookes is also memorable as Freed's mother. She too is an accomplished stage actress. Her close relationship with Caan in the movie is touching and warm, making Freed's selfish manipulation and exploitation of her all the more sad. (Especially memorable is the scene where Freed tells her he doesn't need $10, 000 anymore, then takes her to the beach for a swim. He writes $44, 000 in the sand while she is swimming, knowing she will ask about it.)

The '70s was a particularly fertile time for excellent supporting actors and two actors who would shine brighter in the following decade have very small roles in the picture. James Woods (SALVADOR, 1986) plays a rodent-like, by-the-book bank oficial who nearly gets beaten up Sonny Corleone-style by Caan. M. Emmet Walsh (BLOOD SIMPLE, 1984) plays a fellow gambler Caan meets in a Vegas casino bar to whom he gives a (bad) tip.

THE GAMBLER is in part fascinating because of the disparate elements that somehow hold together. Toback's script is earthy and direct, and yet has literary allusions (Dostoyevsky), and involves characters from a wealthy family. Caan's presence in the lead makes one expect a Sonny Corleone-like character but despite looking like a toughie, his character is well-read, well-bred and a little cowardly. He's also Jewish (as is Caan) and not an Italian-American Catholic. The film is as unpredictable as Caan's character, and one feels like the film is a partnership between a group of very different talents trying to make it work. THE GAMBLER himself is a strange, fascinating beast and so is the movie itself.

Karel Reisz is an interesting choice for director. (This was his American debut, and his first film since ISADORA, six years previously.) Reisz was a Czech Jew who fled to England and was one of the founding members of the Free Cinema documentary movement (with Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Lorenza Mazzetti). He later directed or produced British 'kitchen sink' dramas such as his debut SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (1960) and THIS SPORTING LIFE (1963). Martin Scorsese probably would have been a more obvious choice as he has shown an affinity and a talent for exposing the worlds of sports (RAGING BULL, 1980; THE COLOR OF MONEY, 1986), gambling (CASINO, 1995), addiction (BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, 1999) and of course the Mafia in many of his signature works. (Interestingly, there's a shot of Caan in a Vegas casino, used in the film's poster, where the casino lights look like a halo. There's a similar shot of De Niro in CASINO. A nod to THE GAMBLER?) Scorsese would have been coming off his first major work, 1973's MEAN STREETS, at the time. That said, Reisz's focus on characterisation (bringing out hitherto unseen depths in Caan), his curiously objective but up-close directing style (as opposed to Scorsese's subjective style) and his bold idea to have a Mahler-adapted score for the sparse soundtrack (it's what propels the movie, and what gives the film it's mournful, sad heart; Mahler's music was also used as the score for THE HONEYMOON KILLERS four years previously) all contribute towards a film that repays repeat viewings. James Toback acknowledged his impact on the film: 'Karel's ideas inspired me to write a widely expanded and deepened movie.' Roger Spottiswoode's editing brings great pace and immediacy to a film that could have been static in another team's hands. (He broke his teeth editing for Sam Peckinpah, and later became a versatile writer and director himself.)

The finale is a little jarring and can come across as racist. After being told by 'Hips' that Spencer will now be in the pocket of the Mafia for good, a crestfallen Freed makes his way to Harlem, where he made the opening basketball challenge (indicating that the scene is meant to represent Freed coming full circle). Hips tells him 'you'll be killed'. Freed gets himself a black prostitute and creates a situation where her pimp (Antonio Fargas) is forced to come in and stand up to him. Freed beats him up, and is slashed in the face by the prostitute. The final shot sees Freed looking beatific about the whole thing. He has achieved his destruction, and like Eugene, now has the scars to prove his worthlessness as a human being. The finale can be seen as racist by modern standards: Harlem as a hostile place where you will get killed, and it takes Freed only two minutes to find a prostitute and a pimp. The filmmakers couldn't get away with such a negative depiction of black people and Harlem in these times. It's also jarring because, apart from Caan's open shirted chest hair fashion, hitherto the film has not appeared very dated (assuming the attitudes towards black people and Harlem are simply attitudes that were held at the time). One could argue that Freed chooses Harlem because he remembers the basketball challenge from the early part of the film (we have seen that memory is an important part of the film's fabric), and because he wants a black man to destroy him. He has of course just destroyed the life of Spencer, the young black basketball star. The sudden self-destructive violence seems to anticipate the apocalyptic bloodbath finale of Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER two years later.

THE GAMBLER was going to be Robert Evans' first production at Paramount, but the originally attached producer, Irwin Winkler (ROCKY, 1976), refused to bow out. Evans made CHINATOWN (1974) instead. Paramount head Frank Yablans was gung-ho for the movie but unfortunately lost his seat a week before the movie opened. New head Barry Diller had no stake in the project and the movie wasn't heavily promoted. Despite some good reviews (most notably from Charles Champlin at the Los Angeles Times), the film failed to catch fire at the box-office and drifted into obscurity. Toback made his debut as director four years later with FINGERS, a crime drama with Harvey Keitel. It's a great companion piece to THE GAMBLER and backs up Toback's contention that Reisz filmed his script faithfully. Toback says that fellow gamblers always praise him on how authentic the film is about the compulsion to gamble. It is of course the ultimate compliment to a movie that deserves more respect and attention. It's an understated and demanding film that doesn't lay it all out for you, but it's very much worth the work.

NB. Toback was not informed about the remake, and took to writing an article for Deadline in August 2011, where he criticised those involved in the remake for not informing him, and gave a history of the film's production. Irwin Winkler later produced Scorsese's NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977), RAGING BULL (1980) and GOODFELLAS (1990), and acted opposite him in GUILTY BY SUSPICION (1991). Production co-ordinator Barbara De Fina was married to Scorsese from 1985 to 1991, and has produced many of his films (and continues to do so).

AVAILABILITY: The bare-bones DVD is now out of print.

Review by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.