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.

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