The Gambler (1974)

Director: Karel Reisz

Starring: James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton, Morris Carnovsky, Jacqueline Brookes, Burt Young.

Written by: James Toback

Running Time: 111 mins

Original UK Cert: X

Original US Release: October 1974

As I was watching this wonderful yet dark, forgotten gem from the 70’s, I asked myself would a major studio have the gall to make such a movie now, considering how downbeat the whole set up is. Apparently, they do, as Paramount Pictures, the people who originally produced this version, are remaking it with Mark Walhberg. I wonder how far they will go to keeping it as close to this superbly crafted drama? My money is on they will cop-out by the end. We’ll see. In the meantime…

Axel Freed is a literature professor with a problem. He is a compulsive gambler. In one night he manages to lose $44,000 and his bookie wants the money. Not knowing where to turn, he has to beg for support from his mother, who is willing to bail him out. With the cash in his hands, Axel decides to head for Vegas instead of paying his debts, knowing that he is on a lucky streak. Returning home a winner, Axel cannot help himself but bet which means he has to answer some questions from some pretty dubious characters.

Karel Reisz was renowned for making gritty character driven dramas and this is no exception. A tough tale lacking in glamour, exploring the downfall of a man who cannot stop his demons. It would have been very easy for Reisz and screenwriter James Toback to have made him a man without a career, instead this is a college professor, a man of learning and a man who has great intelligence. It’s a brave yet perfect move, that even someone with brains can be drawn into the dark and dangerously obsessive world of gambling.

We follow Axel from the night of his big loss, wondering how he is going to get himself out of this. Turning to his mother, a doctor at a hospital, it’s a heartbreaking sequence when she accepts to pay as he watches the cash being counted at the bank, we all know that the money isn’t going to the bookie but will be gambled away somewhere else. Reisz uses nothing more than silence to convey this, not even a music score. This makes the whole thing even more powerful.

As the film continues, we watch Axel getting deeper and deeper into debt, almost without him realising the trouble he is getting into. It makes it all the sadder and by the end, we see a man completely broken. It is the strength of James Caan’s extraordinary performance that brings Axel to life. We see every inch of his suffering in his eyes yet its like he cannot control the events. Caan, for me, has always been an underrated actor, who is much more than just the thug or the mob type, which is what he tends to end up playing. This is a man who has weaknesses and they are fully conveyed by just a look.

The rest of the cast is terrific, with Paul Sorvino as the bookie trying to help him and Lauren Hutton as his girlfriend, Millie, who is having to watch him flush his life away. This is Caan’s film and probably his finest performance, that of a man who could, if he wants to, stop but does he want to or does he not realise?

The Gambler is not an easy film to like but its an easy film to recommend. It’s another perfect example of how Hollywood films in the 70’s were not afraid to deal with difficult subject matters and deal with them in the appropriate way, to show it, warts and all. I will be interested to see the remake but I’d be happier if they left it alone and brought this back to the public’s attention.


Not available on DVD in the UK

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