By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com December 4, 2012 at 2:45PM
Coming in the midst of that extraordinary run between his two big hits (1970's "M*A*S*H" and 1975's "Nashville") Robert Altman's "California Split" was, for a long time, never destined to be for the director. Screenwriter/actor Joseph Walsh had been developing it for several years with a young director who'd just made a splash with a TV movie named "Duel" -- Steven Spielberg. The pair had set the project up at MGM, with Steve McQueen starring, but left for Universal after the earlier studio interfered and Spielberg departed the film to make "Sugarland Express," with McQueen falling off around the same time. Finally, it came to Altman at Columbia, and the result was "California Split," the kind of experimental studio movie that would never get made these days, and one of the finest and most authentic gambling movies ever produced. George Segal and Altman regular Elliot Gould play Bill and Charlie, two compulsive gamblers in California (as you might have guessed from the title) who become friends after being robbed by someone they've beaten in a poker game. As is often Altman's wont in this time period, the film is virtually plotless; Bill gets more and more hooked, gets in debt, is on an amazing winning streak, and then suddenly falls out of love with it. It's a study of character and plot, and thanks to Altman's trademark overlapping dialogue (the film was the first non-Cinerama picture to use eight-track recording techniques, meaning that the director's soundscape could be even more cacophonous than ever), it's just about the most unglamorous and authentic take on the subculture that you could ask for (Walsh, who also features in a supporting role, wrote the script as a deliberate reaction against more manufactured gambling movies). As you might imagine, it's really Segal and Gould's show, and both are terrific, giving among their finest performances. It's not an easy watch and needs your total attention to the extent that it's almost only worth watching on the big screen. But you'll certainly find it worthwhile.
Loosely based on the short novel “The Gambler” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (we could have included it in this Russian Novels film adaptation feature too), Karel Reisz’s picture is an underseen gem from the 1970s that’s getting its second wind thanks to Martin Scorsese almost remaking the film (Todd Phillips is now at the helm). Starring James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton and written by James Toback ("Fingers," "Tyson"), there’s obviously a lot of talent involved in this one and it’s no wonder it’s getting a worthy reappraisal of late. Caan plays Axel Freed, a New York City English teacher with a gambling addiction that gets out of hand (of course, he’s teaching Dostoyevsky at the time to explore moral and philosophical questions with his students). Admired by his students and peers, Axel has a beautiful girlfriend Billie (Hutton) and a well-respected family with a doctor for a mother (Jacqueline Brookes), and a wealthy businessman for a grandfather (Morris Carnovsky). But his gambling hubris gets the best of him and soon his bookie (Sorvino) is ready to break his legs for all the money he owes. Desperate, the teacher is on his hands and knees begging his mother and grandfather for money and when financial relief comes, instead of paying his debts, he foolishly tries to get ahead and fails miserably. Sinking deeper into his sickness, Axel reaches new lows when he tries to convince one of his African American students, a basketball star with a scholarship, to throw a game so he can profit. Featuring appearances by Burt Young, James Woods, and M. Emmett Walsh, watching Caan -- who was battling his own cocaine addiction at the time -- sink in his ugly moral morass is stomach-turning and as such, “The Gambler” is a taut and intense little ‘70s drama definitely tracking down.
Something of a critical and commercial disappointment on release, "Rounders" has benefited from the resurgence of poker, via TV broadcasts and Internet games, in the 14 years since it hit theaters, and deservedly so. It's a modest little movie, but a gripping, brilliantly acted and hugely enjoyable one. A post-"Good Will Hunting" Matt Damon stars in a not-dissimilar role as a law student/poker savant, retired from the game after losing $30,000 to the fearsome Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, displaying one of the more ludicrous accents in cinema history), but tempted back, to the disapproval of his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) and mentors (Martin Landau and John Turturro), when his best pal Worm (Edward Norton) comes out of prison and needs a hand in clearing his debts. Gathering some of the hottest young talent at the time (Norton had recently broken out in "Primal Fear," Mol was tipped for stardom), featuring a smart (if sometimes contrived) screenplay by Brian Koppelman and David Levien), and set in a sleazy, Damon Runyon-ish world of underground poker, it's not going to change your world or anything, but it's easily as enjoyable as some of the films above. And on a rewatch, the noirish, assured direction by John Dahl ("Red Rock West," "The Last Seduction") has us hope he gets another feature off the ground soon. In particular, the poker scenes are maybe the best ever filmed, credible (it's regularly referenced by professionals in the field), tense and easy to follow. Along with a thrilling performance from Norton (who walks away with the film even against Malkovich's attempt to start chewing his way through the poker table), that's reason enough to stick the DVD in again, and keep your fingers crossed for that rumored sequel.
- Oliver Lyttelton, RP