Saturday Editor’s Pick: The Gambler (1974)

by on November 4, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Nov 12 at 6:00* at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]

*Q&A with screenwriter James Toback


J. Hoberman and Scott Foundas contine to recruit heavy talent to appear alongside their “Hollywood’s Jew Wave” series, which ends this weekend with Buck Henry and his adaptation of The Owl and The Pussycat.


Back in the spotlight again after a threatened Scorsese-DiCaprio remake, although James Toback has a few things to say about that. In fact its near impossible to sift through the hullabaloo surrounding his outrage for actual commentary on the original. Allow Alt Screen to help you…


A.O. Scott’s video essay for The New York Times:


Gavin Smith advises even Toback-naysayers to see this one, for Film Comment (May/June 2002):

Before he spun out in ever-widening spirals of ludicrous pretension, James Toback was responsible for one film with genuine dimension and complexity. The Gambler is a gritty, well– observed existential study of a Columbia University lit. professor and compulsive gambler (played by James Caan in his mid-Seventies prime) who’s in the hole to his mobbed-up bookie to the tune of 40 grand. Crucially, Toback only wrote this pseudo-autobiographical fantasia of an intellectual’s subDostoyevskian, quasi-Nietzchean descent into the lower depths-the direction, by Anglo-Czech British Free Cinema alumnus Karel Reisz, is more accomplished and restrained than anything Toback himself would prove capable of in later efforts.


Andrew Sarris for the New York Observer:

The Gambler, I was told at the time, was based on Mr. Toback’s own life as a reckless gambler on the point spread in college and professional sporting events. In the movie, his alter ego, played by James Caan, has to be bailed out of his life-threatening gambling debts by his mother’s squirreled-away life savings. It was a dreadful moment to watch on the screen: Mr. Caan bowing his head in shame from the sorrowful scorn heaped upon him by his mother, played by that excellent actress Jacqueline Brookes. There was something undeniably original and unsettling about all of Mr. Toback’s self-hatred turned inward. I began to regard Mr. Toback as the curse of the auteur theory. His work was too personal for my taste, and yet I could never stay away from it.



Adrian Martin in The Last Great American Picture Show – New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s:

An unjustly overlooked film that is more notable in retrospect than it seemed to commentators at the time. Its unique collision of topics, drawing mainly from many genres, but following the template of no single genre – criminality, sexuality, sport, gambling, family melodrama, high culture – sets the distinctive pattern for all future Toback projects. The fledgling auteur, in and around The Gambler, was already taking up his big, existential themes: loss of control, uncertainty of self, reckless risk, erotic ecstasy, magnificent obsession, the continuum of the artist and the gangster, and defiance of the mainstream system.


Karel Reiz’s direction of The Gambler makes for an instructive benchmark against which to measure Toback’s own subsequent style. Resembling the method of Sidney Lumet at his best and anticipating Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, Reisz blends neo-classical precision-control with the legacy of the Nouvelle Vague; each scene presents itself as a block of finely observed and performed detail. Only a long way down the chain of scenes are we able to piece together all the pertinent character relations an retroactively see the narrative set-ups so casually planted within the flow of gesture an atmosphere. Toback astutely noted Reisz’s “extremely successful creation of tightness, tension, movement, and dramatic force” within a stylistic framework that, at the same time, is characterized by “a kind of leisurely and graceful fluidity.”



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Axel finds nothing in 1974 to test himself against, however. He has to find his own dangers, to court and seduce them. And the ultimate risk in his life as a gambler is that behind his friendly bookies and betting cronies is the implacable presence of the Mafia, the guys who take his bets like him, but if he doesn’t pay, there’s nothing they can do. “It’s out of my hands,” his pal Hips explains. “A bad gambling debt has got to be taken care of.” And that adds an additional dimension to The Gambler, which begins as a portrait of Axel Freed’s personality, develops into the story of his world, and then pays off as a thriller. We become so absolutely contained by Axel’s problems and dangers that they seem like our own. There’s a scene where he soaks in the bathtub and listens to the last minutes of a basketball game, and another scene where he sits in the stands and watches a basketball game he has tried to fix (while a couple of hit men watch him), and these scenes have a quality of tension almost impossible to sustain. But Reisz sustains them, and makes them all the more real because he doesn’t populate the rest of his movie with stock characters.


There’s a scene in The Gambler that has James Caan on screen all by himself for two minutes, locked in a basement room, waiting to meet a Mafia boss who will arguably instruct that his legs be broken. In another movie, the scene could have seemed too long, too eventless. But Reisz, Caan, and screenwriter James Toback have constructed the character and the movie so convincingly that the scene not only works, but works two ways: first as suspense, and then as character revelation. Because as we look into Axel Freed’s caged eyes we see a person who is scared to death and yet stubbornly ready for this moment he has brought down upon himself.



David Thomson in a profile on Toback for Film Comment (Nov/Dec 1980):

in 1972, he wrote the screenplay for The Gambler, about a college literature teacher who is being pursued by the Mob for gambling debts: it was his own life given the glamour of fiction. Orion boss Mike Medavoy was his agent then and he sold the script to Karel Reisz. Robert DeNiro, the first casting, attended Toback’s classes to study the part. But Reisz made the script more coherent and less convulsive; DeNiro was replaced with James Caan. Seen now, The Gambler is a fascinating picture full of Toback’s own delight in terror and hazard: “The passion to gamble,” he explains, “is as beyond description as sex or violence. It’s essentially onanistic: the loneliness of gambling exceeds everything but that of deadbeat alcoholics. The intense uncertainty is ecstatic, nearly religious or hallucinatory.” He says he never gambled to win or lose, and he often bet on sports he didn’t follow or on games of blind chance. He won’t say how much he ever won or lost, but at times he owed close to a million. Whatever the sensation, it’s hard to think he didn’t need to lose. He says that chips are like shit and that the process is sexual, excremental, and financial, straining for an answer to the question: “Are you completely out yet?”

After that, a movie is the only thing that has ever satisfied him.



Joshua Wiebe for Octopus Cinema:

It’s fascinating then that a British director working on a Russian adaptation could end up with such a quintessentially American end-product and with star James Caan in the lead the film seemed to demand attention. But what we demand can often be ignored, and so it was with The Gambler, what was to be an overlooked gem of the seventies. Toback and Reisz take great care to submerge us in the world of underground gambling, the minutiae of betting, winning, losing, the payoffs and the moments in between. This is not a comfortable story of great risk and great gain as is and was popular when it comes to gambling films, it is a remarkably genuine portrait of internal conflict in the guise of an incredibly self-destructive human being. What sets The Gambler apart from more contemporary fare is its utter denial of the dizzying heights and depraved lows of gambling.

The Gambler is brilliant in its conception and its delivery, following through on the intellectual ideologies it displays very successfully and more than any other gambling film gives us an entry point into what really makes gambling so addictive. James Caan is a revelation in the film, on top of his game in every way and giving form to a character who would be very little if his sincerity were not undermined by his sarcasm at every turn, something which Caan does devastatingly. The world of The Gambler is suitably drawn to fit Reisz and Toback’s world view, filled with uninteresting bureaucrats (watch for a single scene appearance from the incredibly irritating but wonderful James Woods) and compelling lowlifes. I have to single out Paul Sorvino and Burt Young who do amazing jobs of portraying the threatening but very human and sympathetic face of the criminal element but also Carl W. Crudup who plays the class clown and juvenile basketball prodigy Spencer who is tainted by Axel’s games. Atop all of the theorizing and conceptual development that the film deals with, we are made privy to a very fatalistic view of the world which directly contradicts Axel’s view which has faith in the power of free and determined will. This makes for an incredibly nuanced and complicated film, fascinating in its multi-dimensional perspective of a single man haunted by his inner demons.



The blog Nouvelle Vague Cinematheque:

What follows is not a typical story arc. We are not taken through various trials, to be lead at the end to Axel’s salvation. Axel, in fact, does not learn any lessons; he is not even an anti-hero, because there is very little that is heroic about his behaviour. Over the course of the movie we watch our protagonist gamble compulsively; look on gormlessly as a loan shark breaks the knuckles of a penniless client (as the man’s wife looks on in horror); finagle his hard-working mother out of her life savings, then blow it all almost immediately in Vegas; nearly rape his long-suffering girlfriend; convince a student to fix a basketball game to worm his way out of debt with the loan sharks, only to blow off his only friend to visit a whorehouse where he deliberately provokes the pimp into a bloody fight. The movie ends with the hooker slashing his face with a knife. He stumbles out of the room, blood pouring down his face, looks into the hallway mirror, and smiles.


What are we to make out of a movie like this? Are we supposed to enjoy it? No, but neither do we “enjoy” La Nausée or L’Etranger. What we have instead might be a feeling of wakening, a small and perhaps painful light burning through us as we consider that there may be something truthful about this character, something in him that is perhaps also in ourselves. This is not a story about human strength, it is not even primarily a story about human weakness. The Gambler is a treatise on freedom.


Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →