Writer Recommends #1: The Gambler

1974

Directed by: Karel Reisz

Written by: James Toback

Starring: James Caan, Lauren Hutton, Paul Sorvino

Nope, nothing to do with Kenny Rogers: although that film may feature as someone’s recommendation somewhere.

This is a gritty drama following college professor Axel Freed (Caan) through his trials and tribulations as he succumbs to his addiction to gambling.  In doing so, not only does he hit and break through rock bottom, but he brings the people he loves, and who love him, and others down with him. 

Freed owes $44,000 to bookie Hips (Sorvino) and, whilst things start amicably, Hips effectively educates Freed in what happens to others who owe him.  Freed has been given a lot of room to manoeuvre by Hips.  Hips likes the fact that Freed is an educated and cultured man and he does not want to see Freed end up like the others that he strong arms into paying debts.  But the room to manoeuvre has to run out some time because even Hips has other things to pay for and he can’t do that with a $44,000 hole in his pocket.

Tellingly, Freed seems as much addicted to risk in his life, as he is to gambling on the throw of a dice.  His lectures provide an insight into the mentality that Freed is following:  It is about belief.  Making yourself believe so much that you cannot lose, the example he uses is a 3 pointer in basketball as the buzzer sounds: most of the time, they don’t go in, so why go for it?  Because at that moment in time, you believe it will go in.

Unfortunately for Freed, you can believe as much as you like, but the odds remain the same.  The movie follows Freed as he tries to get the money together to pay his debt.  In doing so, he degrades himself by borrowing from his girlfriend (the stunning Hutton), using his wealthy family background for a hand out from his mother and even influencing one of his own students to shave points in a basketball game.

Due to Caan’s screen presence and charisma, Freed is a character almost impossible to dislike: even when he effectively comes across as a spoilt momma’s boy when bailed out by his mother.  But it is like watching a car crash – you can’t take your eyes of it, even though you know it is going to end badly. 

We follow Freed’s decent and watch him claw his way back, only to discover that it is only the audience that wishes him to have the Hollywood ending of getting out of debt, out of trouble and out of gambling.  Freed does not seek redemption.  He does not seek a way out.  If anything, he digs himself deeper into the mire.

 Reisz, director of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, provides scene after scene of electrifying tension – the height of which is surely the “Gimme a 3” scene.

It was written, as a first major screenplay, by James Toback, who has since gone on to make a name for himself as a writer and director (most recently with “Tyson”). 

There are even notable appearances from Burt Young, James Woods and Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear).

But, this film belongs to Caan.  Caan was at the height of his ability as an actor in 1974.  He was on a roll, having completed The Godfather, Slither and Cinderella Liberty and he would go on to continue his defining decade in Rollerball. Poor choices and personal issue have prevented him from being part of the “De Niro / Pacino / Nicholson” class, but he shows his potential and the reason he was so successful in full in this movie.

He carries the movie with a performance that somehow manages to combine subtlety and brute force (Caan was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance).

The movie ends with a shocking sequence that will leave you reeling.  This is not a movie about gambling.  It is a movie about addiction. 

“For $10,000 they break your arms. For $20,000 they break your legs. Axel Freed owes $44,000.”

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One response to “Writer Recommends #1: The Gambler

  1. Had not heard of this one and as you say it’s the hidden gems and unloved movies that always make for the more interesting that people discover.

    That’s the problem with this multi-channel universe we live in of Sky + etc that people are less likely to stumble along such gems, they have to be a bit more proactive in searching them out on the likes of TCM.

    And certainly your local Blockbusters isn’t going to have them!

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