“If all my bets were safe,” Axel Freed (James Caan) says near the end of Karel Reiz’s The Gambler, “there wouldn’t be any juice.” He’s talking to his bookie Hips (Paul Sorvino), explaining how if he wanted to, he could just win all the time – but there’s no fun in that. In the moment, it sounds like bluster, like a frequent loser making excuses. By the end of the picture, his assertion makes a lot more sense.
The Gambler is part of the Criterion Channel’s new program of gambling movies (it’s also streaming on Amazon Prime), alongside such all-timers as Bob le flambeur, The Hustler, House of Games, and California Split – which came out in 1974, the same year as The Gambler’s release. And of the 18 films included, those two seem to best understand the psychology of the compulsive gambler, and within that, his inherent nihilism.
Axel is already “down” when we meet him – indeed, one of the film’s best qualities is the sense that we’re joining this story already in progress, so it immediately immerses us in this world, and expects us, to some extent, to figure things out on our own. He has, according to Hips, “the worst luck I seen in 15 years,” and he’s currently down $44,000. Does this give him pause? Prompt him to reflect on his life and the choices he’s making? No. On his way home from a gambling den, he stops and tries to hustle up $20 on a street basketball bet. (Unsurprisingly, he loses.)
But that’s how addicted he is to the dopamine hit of winning – or losing. This is not a guy who needs to hustle for bread; he comes from a well-to-do Upper West Side family, and has a solid gig as an English professor at City College. (When Rupert Wyatt remade the movie in 2014 with Mark Wahlberg in the lead, some chortled that he wasn’t credible as a professor, but to be fair, Caan isn’t exactly the academic type either.) But that job, like his familial relationships and his romance with shiksa knockout Billie (Lauren Hutton), is secondary. His only real interest is gambling, and his only other activity, as he tells her, is “going hunting.”
“Hunting what?” she asks.
“Cash,” he replies.
That hunt takes him to his mother (Jacqueline Brookes), and they play out a script they’ve presumably gone through more than once; “I probably won’t even need it,” he lies to her, and one thing The Gambler knows, and knows well, is the language of liars. It also knows the language of addiction, the single-mindedness that becomes so prevalent in a person, you can see it in their eyes, darting away to think about a fix, even in the middle of conversations that will enable that very activity. It’s not surprising to learn that Caan was himself in the thrall of a cocaine addiction while crafting this, one of his finest performances; he’s more exciting in The Godfather, perhaps, or more melancholy in Thief, but I’m not sure he’s ever been more present in a movie, more urgently thinking and plotting and alive onscreen.
Reisz, a Czech-born filmmaker who burst out of the British kitchen sink movement (his debut film was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), was making his American debut, and his sense of time and place – New York in the mid-‘70s – has a similar, razor-sharp attentiveness to detail to other “tourist” portraits of the city, like Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy and Passer’s Born to Win. And he fills out his scenes with a steady stream of ace character actors, including not only the terrific Sorvino but Burt Young and Vic Tayback (both far scarier than their later, teddy bear images might lead you to believe) and very early appearances by James Woods and M. Emmet Walsh (with dark, but still thinning, hair).
But this is ultimately a character study, and an uncommonly intimate one. The script is by notorious scumbag James Toback (and as with most of his work, its issues with gender and race are a lot to unpack) – like Axel, a well-off Jewish kid with a teaching gig and a gambling addiction. That kind of inside perspective can’t be faked, any more than it can be explained; when his mother hears the amount he owes and asks, not unreasonably, “How is that possible,” he answers accurately and simply: “Well, I gambled and I lost.” It’s not a choice he makes. It’s a fact of his life.
And that’s the harrowing thing about the great gambling movies, about this and California Split and Owning Mahowney and Mississippi Grind: you know, with absolute certainty, that their protagonists are going to keep risking it, in spite of everything they’ve been through, in spite of their proximity to injury or even death, in spite of how easy it would be for any of the rest of us to just pay off the debt and walk away. And they’re going to keep risking it because when that risk pays off, yes, it is thrilling. You get it. You get how and why they chase that high.
“How do you feel?” Hips asks near the film’s conclusion, when things have finally evened up for Axel. And in response, he’s stone-faced. He doesn’t feel much of anything. It’s The Gambler’s variation on the ending of California Split – it’s not the winning that makes him feel alive. It’s the losing, and in that, the danger, the desperate scrounge trying to scrape things together. He escapes death at that moment, and so, he goes looking for it somewhere else.
The picture’s producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, would find their own jackpot two years later with Rocky – another kind of ‘70s character drama, and one that would prove instructive in the kind of movies that were going to make money from here on out. The two films’ endings couldn’t be more divergent; for that matter, neither could this one and the aforementioned 2014 remake. By that time, the kind of bummer conclusion the original Gambler was willing to subject an audience to was not only implausible, but impossible. The remake imports the end of Rounders, rather than grapple with what Toback and Reisz and Caan wanted to leave us with: a closing image of casual danger and, in that, chilling depravity.