[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
The Gambler is a curiously cerebral film in which the play of ideas (particularly literary assessments of the American experience) is transferred from the incestuous séance of the academic seminar to green baize gambling tables. There, those ideas are raised, not as ghosts, but as the highest stakes a man can wager. In California Split Robert Altman used gambling as an excuse for getting at the marginalia, the milieu, rather than as a metaphysical metaphor. Director Karel Reisz and screenwriter James Toback (a professor of English) are clearly after bigger fish—say, about the size of Moby Dick. For like Ahab, Reisz’s gambler bets on himself, his own power or will, to make some impression, to impose some meaning on … what? Perhaps that which resists will: fate or chance, the existential territory that refuses to be enfeoffed by the central “I-am.”
Axel Freed (played with unexpected intelligence by James Caan) is a professor of literature who teaches by day what he practices all night. Lecturing on Dostoevsky, Freed translates his creative non serviam of “2+2=5” into language a black basketball player (who craves “realities”) can understand by comparing it to the kid’s own occasional urge to play beyond his known shooting range. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, and Freed’s gambling is his way of reaching out with the sheer strength of his will to make something so when all the odds are against it. The clues to his compulsion accrue as much through what Freed teaches as the circumstances of his life. Fresh from quoting William Carlos Williams’s assessment of George Washington in In the American Grain, Axel attends his grandfather’s birthday party cum family reunion, where he eulogizes the old man as another kind of American pioneer, one who as a boy knifed a Cossack who had struck his mother, later survived as a “bandit” in the mean streets of New York, and ultimately carved out by strength of cunning and will a small empire in the form of a chain of department stores. In the old man’s daughter, Axel’s mother, the lineaments of power have moved from hand to head. As a physician, she battles disease, extends an intangible frontier, dominates enemies less immediate, more elusive than Jew-baiting Cossacks.
Axel’s ancestry, the tradition which culminates in him, is uniquely bound up with the history of his country, the American Dream and its decline from action to abstraction. Gambling itself is an abstraction to Axel; the enormous amounts of money which pass into and out of his hands lack concreteness, reality. When Altman’s gamblers win big at the crap table, communal delight and camaraderie fill the screen, the dice are tracked the length of the table, and we are drawn in at eye-level to participate in a real event. Axel Freed, ‘way ahead of the game, is shot from below, looming alone in a predominantly dark and empty frame; his face is closed by a private kind of eerie transfiguration, his head neon-haloed by a light anchored to no visible ceiling. Whatever event occurs here is located in the mind, and it is not shared. It’s with difficulty that Axel apprehends that the underworld types with whom he plays, wins, loses, borrows, pursue the white whale for oil and ambergris, not meaning, so that when they don’t get their money they break bones and kill people. Axel’s latterday dream of pioneering is progressively brought to earth, but most decisively when, in order to save his own skin, he bribes the black basketball player (Carl W. Crudup) to shave points—thus violating the boy’s territory for taking chances and sabotaging what he himself had taught by making 2+2 equal a surefire 4 at game’s end. Director Karel Reisz must have realized that audiences lured by misleading promos into the theater to see a film about gambling and its glamorously dangerous environment would be hard put to get next to a movie that is visually and thematically claustrophobic, that depends upon metaphor and literary allusion for the decoding of Axel Freed’s notes from underground. I count it a measure of courage—pretentious and misguided, perhaps, but courage nonetheless—to have attempted such a film.
Copyright © 1975 Kathleen Murphy
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.