[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
James Caan has graduated from the half-wit college boy of Coppola’s The Rain People right into a professorship at NYCC in his latest picture, Karel Reisz’ heavyhanded non-exploration into the befuddled and befuddling id of a compulsive gambler which ultimately becomes knotted up in its own tangle of 19th century existentialism and carelessly applied Nietzschean superman metaphysics. Somehow I was more convinced by Caan’s gentle inarticulateness in Coppola’s movie than I was by the cutely masochistic cool he sardonically exudes in The Gambler, and although he’s still impaling women against walls (shades of The Godfather) and strutting about with the typical Caan machismo which fails to be tempered by his role as a teacher in Reisz’s film, the character of Axei Freed lacks some of the gritty credibility which Caan was able to give to the role of gangster Sonny Corleone. Which may not be so much Caan’s fault as that of Reisz and screenwriter Toback who, instead of trying to develop their character from the bottom up, begin in some metaphysical realm far above his head and pigeonhole his personality in a framework of neatly defined psychological concepts, with the result that Caan’s character reads like a textbook case rather than reminds us of a man.
Indeed, one of the things about The Gambler which put me off, and which actually played against any chance Caan might have had to make the character and his plight a little more believable, was Reisz’s often ludicrously untimely invocations of the “heavies”: Mahler, Dostoevsky, Cummings, et al. OK for the literary quotes, to a point (Freed teaches English); but the use of Mahler’s first symphony (which suggests a metaphysical dimension the movie never attains on its own) as a shakily leitmotivic device is too much of a pretentiously cultural announcement, a superficial appendage rather than a thematically integral component. Caan himself, caught somewhere between Toback’s screenplay and Reisz’s quirky direction, is thus expected to be “deep” as well as crazy, but ends up being for the most part merely unexplainable; not in the richly complex sense of being human, but in the sense of portraying a character whom neither the screenwriter nor the audience can believe in with much conviction. But then, if one could pare away all the sticky culture trappings of The Gambler, he would probably be left with little more than an honest second-rater (emphasis on “honest,” as distinct from Reisz’s hollow loftiness), and he would find that the movie is disturbing only in the conventional Hollywood terms of our fear as to how bad Axel Freed is going to get bloodied by those warmed-over Godfather baddies.
As it stands, we are certainly not bothered with any of the potential psychological implications as to what makes Freed tick, and this seems to be where the film most markedly fails. Too often, Reisz employs ultimately pointless visual signals when what we really need is a bit of simple elucidation. For instance, as Naomi (Freed’s mother) warns Axel that money alone is not going to get him out of the problems engendered by his habitual propensity to lose (in another scene Freed is likened to a junkie, and in fact the money he blows presumably goes for Mafia dope operations) we get a shot in which a red Exit sign hangs conspicuously above a mirror where they are reflected. Something clicks: there is a nice, neat connection between the sign and what Naomi is talking about, but the connection fails to make any kind of point beyond the fact that the visual image and the dialogue support a common motif. Similarly, the bathtub scene where Caan sinks slowly from sight after the Lakers have lost and he is out his last 50 thousand is no better, no more “meaningful” for being shot in a mirror (a technique we become aware of only at the end of the scene, when the camera pulls back slightly). Freed’s compulsiveness, we must finally admit, is simply assumed, and Reisz apparently feels it is enough, as Freed contemplates gambling his mother’s money away, that a little Mahler be piped over the soundtrack, as if that explains something about his character’s motivation. In the end, when Reisz extends Freed’s existential enterprise into new vistas of incredibility and we see Caan stumbling into Harlem at night, we are more confused than perturbed. Why is he doing this? Or, perhaps more to the point, why do Toback and Reisz believe that we would believe anyone would engage in this sort of madness just so he could tempt fate and death and play Dostoevsky as he glares triumphantly at his razor-slashed doppelgänger a whorehouse mirror?
Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann
Direction: Karel Reisz. Screenplay: James Toback. Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper. Production Design: Philip Rosenberg. Editing: Roger Spottiswoode. Music: Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler; Score: Jerry Fielding. Production: Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff.
The Players: James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Morris Carnovsky, Jacqueline Brooks, Lauren Hutton, Carl W. Crudup, Burt Young, Carmine Caridi.