A Movie A Day: Quint on THE GAMBLER (1974)
I’m not going to lose it. I’m going to gamble it.
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Today we hit the final film of our mini-James Caan-a-Thon, started with yesterday’s EL DORADO.
THE GAMBLER is a piece of dark ‘70s filmmaking, centered on a college English professor who not only gambles, but thrives on bad bets.
When we first meet James Caan, he’s having a horrible streak of bad luck at what looks to me to be a highly illegal backroom casino. He’s playing blackjack at three Gs a hand, betting the same amount on roulette, betting on Red even though it keeps hitting black.
That’s the trick to his obsession. He claims later on in the film that if he played what he was sure about, he’d be able to wipe the floor with anybody. He could be a world-class, incredibly wealthy, gambler if he so chose and I believe him when he says that.
But that’s not what he’s in it for. Time and again he makes horrible bets, always on the long shots, always on things that anybody who has ever played cards or bet on a basketball game would think he’s crazy for putting so much money in to. Whether it’s doubling down on 18 (vs a dealer showing a King) or betting $20 vs. ten cents that he can outplay a hotshot basketball player, he always bets against himself.
In his classroom we hear a few of his lessons and we see where his obsession stems from. He cites an essay about George Washington that highlights Washington’s biggest character flaw, his fear of failure. So much so that he would avoid any discussion or situation where failure might be an option. He wouldn’t take any risks.
He also holds a discussion on Dostoevsky’s proposition that 2 and 2 can equal 5, whereby through sheer will of belief that a certain outcome can be different than expectations perceive it. When a popular jock in his class calls bullshit on that, Caan asks what his shot-range is in a typical basketball game. “About 20 feet,” is the response. Caan follows up asking if he ever shoots outside of this range. The player, Spencer (played by Carl W. Crudup), says he does. Does he make those shots? Mostly no. Then why do it if the outcome is uncertain?
Caan postulates that for a split second after the ball leaves Crudup’s hands he believes it’s going to be different than previous outcomes. There’s no evidence, just sheer will.
That’s the key to unlocking Professor Axel Freed’s complex character and the true insight we need as an audience to not completely want to wash our hands of Caan’s character.
Now, I’m a gambler myself. I’m no hardcore gambler, but I love going to Vegas and playing cards. I’m a pretty decent poker player and that’s what I’ve decided to stick with when I play for money, but I understand Axel Freed’s obsession. I understand that desire to have a longshot payoff. It’s not about money at that point. Money is just a means for that feeling of winning when the odds are against you, when every possible rational outcome was not in your favor. That’s the addiction, recapturing that feeling.
Thankfully, my self-control is pretty and I have never had trouble stopping when I’m losing or keeping my head on the wins, but I can understand the temptation to go deep into gambling addiction… hell, I can relate to Caan more than I can relate to similar movies about drug addiction, something that is very alien to me. I can love TRAINSPOTTING, but there’s a level of connection I can never have with that film because I don’t fully comprehend addiction to hard drugs.
But you can see it in this movie, we get a taste of the good life when Caan turns his luck around. He’s $44,000 in the tank to some pretty bad people and he finally gets it from his doctor mother, in a manner that is not only humiliating for him, but you can tell is breaking his mother’s heart.
What’s he do when he has that money? He tries to do the right thing and just pay off his debt, save his life, but when he has to hold onto it for a little longer he’s suddenly making $15k bets around town and then he heads to Vegas.
But his hunch works this time. In Vegas, he goes crazy and just can’t lose. I’ve been there, too… you get that streak once and you spend the rest of your gambling life chasing that high. It feels so easy, so effortless, just as it feels so hopeless and impossible when you’re on a bad streak.
So we see him winning, see how different he is. He treats his girl, played by Lauren Hutton, better, he seems at peace. But like any addiction, that peace is temporary.
James Toback began his career writing this film and it feels like his work. The characters are all flawed, the world is real, the danger is real and the downward spiral our character is in seems to have no end. And Caan is so self-destructive we wonder if there’s any chance whatsoever at salvation.
And when the end comes, I don’t think the character finds it. The very end of the film is very weird, coming way out of left field. I read it as a suicide attempt… but I still don’t know how conscious it is on his part. Maybe it’s not so much suicide as it is one more gamble, a situation where he’s betting against himself yet again.
Caan is great in the lead. This is a very fascinating period in his career, taking place between THE GODFATHER and ROLLERBALL, a period where he did some of the best underseen work of his career if I can be so bold. He did a great little comedy called SLITHER with Peter Boyle and Sally Kellerman in this time as well as a flawed film called CINDERELLA LIBERTY where his performance is the only thing that fully works… But the star of this time period is FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, a crazy buddy-cop movie co-starring Alan Arkin.
There are some great character actors in this flick, including Paul Sorvino who is Caan’s friend, but still a bookie who can’t protect him from his bosses. Sorvino plays the character a little off. He’s twitchy, always nervous. Burt Young has way too little screentime as Carmine, an enforcer for another bookie around town. Caan tags along with him on one run early on in the movie and we don’t see him again. Too bad, I always loved Burt Young from my ROCKY exposure as a kid and he’s great for the little bit we see of him here.
Also keep an eye out for a small, one-scene turn by two awesome actors. The first is Mr. James Woods as a dickish bank teller who gets a little Caan-workover and the second is one of my favorite character actors Mr. M. Emmet Walsh who is a dude at a bar in Vegas that has a few words with Caan. It’s great seeing such early work by these guys.
But this is James Caan’s movie, a role that actors would kill for today. We don’t see too many characters as likable, but terribly flawed and sometimes despicable as Axel Freed these days… and if we do, odds are Phillip Seymour Hoffman already has dibs on the role.
Final Thoughts: Complex, brooding and wholly ‘70s filmmaking. THE GAMBLER is not a story full of sunshine, rainbows and puppies, but there is still somehow hope in the movie. It’s hard for me to pinpoint where I’m getting that hope from… maybe I’m just an optimistic person, but I felt it in this movie. Great characters, great performances and a steady, confident filmmaking style from Karel Reisz all add up to make this a great little flick. But the person who photoshopped Lauren Hutton for the DVD cover should be brutally assaulted by a pack of rabid chinchillas hopped up on angel dust.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Sunday, November 16th: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)
Monday, November 17th: SALVADOR (1986)
Tuesday, November 18th: BEST SELLER (1987)
Wednesday, November 19th: THE HOLCROT COVENANT (1985)
Thursday, November 20th: BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962)
Friday, November 21st: WHITE HEAT (1949)
Saturday, November 22nd: MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957)
I’m really, really looking forward to tomorrow. I’m a huge Sergio Leone fan and this is one of the biggies of his that I have yet to see. See you guys tomorrow for ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA!
June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon
August 12th: The Skull
August 13th: The Hellfire Club
August 14th: Blood of the Vampire
August 15th: Terror of the Tongs
August 16th: Pirates of Blood River
August 17th: The Devil-Ship Pirates
August 18th: Jess Franco’s Count Dracula
August 19th: Dracula A.D. 1972
August 20th: The Stranglers of Bombay
August 21st: Man, Woman & Child
August 22nd: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
August 23rd: The Young Philadelphians
August 24th: The Rack
August 25th: Until They Sail
August 26th: Somebody Up There Likes Me
August 27th: The Set-Up
August 28th: The Devil & Daniel Webster
August 29th: Cat People
August 30th: The Curse of the Cat People
August 31st: The 7th Victim
September 1st: The Ghost Ship
September 2nd: Isle of the Dead
September 3rd: Bedlam
September 4th: Black Sabbath
September 5th: Black Sunday
September 6th: Twitch of the Death Nerve
September 7th: Tragic Ceremony
September 8th: Lisa & The Devil
September 9th: Baron Blood
September 10th: A Shot In The Dark
September 11th: The Pink Panther
September 12th: The Return of the Pink Panther
September 13th: The Pink Panther Strikes Again
September 14th: Revenge of the Pink Panther
September 15th: Trail of the Pink Panther
September 16th: The Real Glory
September 17th: The Winning of Barbara Worth
September 18th: The Cowboy and the Lady
September 19th: Dakota
September 20th: Red River
September 21st: Terminal Station
September 22nd: The Search
September 23rd: Act of Violence
September 24th: Houdini
September 25th: Money From Home
September 26th: Papa’s Delicate Condition
September 27th: Dillinger
September 28th: Battle of the Bulge
September 29th: Daisy Kenyon
September 30th: Laura
October 1st: The Dunwich Horror
October 2nd: Experiment In Terror
October 3rd: The Devil’s Rain
October 4th: Race With The Devil
October 5th: Salo, Or The 120 Days of Sodom
October 6th: Bad Dreams
October 7th: The House Where Evil Dwells
October 8th: Memories of Murder
October 9th: The Hunger
October 10th: I Saw What You Did
October 11th: I Spit On Your Grave
October 12th: Naked You Die
October 13th: The Wraith
October 14th: Silent Night, Bloody Night
October 15th: I Bury The Living
October 16th: The Beast Must Die
October 17th: Hellgate
October 18th: He Knows You’re Alone
October 19th: The Thing From Another World
October 20th: The Fall of the House of Usher
October 21st: Audrey Rose
October 22nd: Who Slew Auntie Roo?
October 23rd: Wait Until Dark
October 24th: Dead & Buried
October 25th: A Bucket of Blood
October 26th: The Bloodstained Shadow
October 27th: I, Madman
October 28th: Return to Horror High
October 29th: Die, Monster, Die
October 30th: Epidemic
October 31st: Student Bodies
November 1st: Black Widow
November 2nd: The Ghost & Mrs. Muir
November 3rd: Flying Tigers
November 4th: Executive Action
November 5th: The Busy Body
November 6th: It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
November 7th: Libeled Lady
November 8th: Up The River
November 9th: Doctor Bull
November 10th: Judge Priest
November 11th: Ten Little Indians
November 12th: Murder On The Orient Express
November 13th: Daniel
November 14th: El Dorado
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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Nov. 15, 2008, 10:55 p.m. CST
Nov. 15, 2008, 11:26 p.m. CST
What a gyp.
Nov. 15, 2008, 11:31 p.m. CST
so obviously does not have that face.
Nov. 15, 2008, 11:32 p.m. CST
Nov. 15, 2008, 11:39 p.m. CST
That's Faye Dunaway on the dvd cover.
Nov. 15, 2008, 11:45 p.m. CST
NICE. <p> I always preferred the Coward of the County. Or, of course, What Condition My Condition Was In.
Nov. 16, 2008, 1:46 a.m. CST
Everyone considers it the coward of the county
Nov. 16, 2008, 1:55 a.m. CST
I watched the ST Trailer first
Nov. 16, 2008, 3:21 a.m. CST
by Boba Fat
Great opening in fact the whole thing a Coen brothers feel to it that I really enjoyed. It seems that this was a time when a lot of studio films were like today's independent movies.
Nov. 16, 2008, 3:56 a.m. CST
by Napoleon Park
that this was about the Kenny Rogers made for TV film.<p>I do not much care for gamblers, alcoholics or other self-made losers obsessed with making bad choices. Including folks who toss money they can't afford to lose at Wall Street investments. That's why I consider "Leaving Las Vegas" to be a comedy - a pitiful self destructive drunk ends badly, as it should be, and everyone's happy. Does that make me bad?
Nov. 16, 2008, 6:01 a.m. CST
love that film and style of storytelling, which you rarely see nowadays. amazing opening scene as well (the way the gambling scene and caan's drive home is cut together with the classical music)
Nov. 16, 2008, 7:41 a.m. CST
Yes - you do get to see Lauren Hutton's boobs. And yes - there's a rather graphic (for its time) bit of violence in the film - good gaping wound and blood.
Nov. 16, 2008, 10:34 a.m. CST
by Major Hockshtetter
Ever see that documentary about this dude? Total sleazoid nutbar... which is his charm, I guess. This is a highpoint of a somewhat checkered career, though, great movie. Plays well in a double feature with PTA's Hard Eight.
Nov. 16, 2008, 10:36 a.m. CST
by Major Hockshtetter
Man, are you in for a treat tomorrow, Quint. This movie transcends life itself. It took me days to recover.
Nov. 16, 2008, 11:10 a.m. CST
James Caan's greatest film for my money.
Nov. 16, 2008, 8:33 p.m. CST
I saw this at The Cod Drive-In on Cape Cod Summer of '74. Great movie.
Nov. 16, 2008, 9:11 p.m. CST
by a rolling stone
That is all.
Nov. 16, 2008, 11:21 p.m. CST
'sall I got...
Nov. 17, 2008, 5:50 a.m. CST
by Karl Childers
Jesus. My 8 year-old could've made a better cover than that.
Nov. 17, 2008, 8:57 a.m. CST
you can do us all a favour by reviewing The Gambler (1980) since it's better known by name alone, and has the tenuous connection with this one that makes it a candidate for your next review.
Nov. 17, 2008, 10:29 a.m. CST
Fingers with Harvey Keitel.
Nov. 18, 2008, 12:08 a.m. CST
And of course he was awesome as Sonny. But for some reason whenever I think of Caan I think of Rollerball.
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