“$10,000. I probably won’t need it. I just need to know if I can count on you in case I do.” – Axel
The great film about a gambling junkie and the biggest crime of all is that is doesn’t have a stronger reputation. The Gambler (1974) urgent opening scene has Axel Freed (James Caan) in the hole for $44,000. Axel’s friend Hips (Paul Sorvino), an associate with a bookie, says consolingly he has never seen such a string of bad cards. Axel wants another thousand to bet. Another thousand in order to win back $44,000? Crazy, Hips says. “That’s six El Dorados. $44,000, Axel. It ain’t just numbers!” Axel is a university professor who teaches Dostoevsky, but his income ends there. He has a wealthy family to fall back on supposedly, but he can only dip into that well so many times.
While in debt with bookies Axel is completely aware of what they can do to him. He explains to his mother, “For $10,000 they break your arms. For twenty, your legs. For fifty, you get a whole new face.”
Caan, in the best performance of his career, called this film his favorite. “It’s not easy to make people care about a guy who steals from his mother to pay gambling debts.” Axel doesn’t literally steal from his mother, he asks her for the money. Son escorts his mother to go into the bank together, and afterwards they have one of those long shameful talks about how at this moment this is going to be the end of his gambling. He’s on the way to the bookie, but he’s unavailable. So he takes the $44,000 on him to Vegas with his hot girlfriend (Lauren Hutton) to gamble with. (Now it feels like stealing.) For a few minutes in Vegas, he’s a stud. But a compulsive gambler never knows how to go a week without gambling.
This is a portrait of a man who bets with the excitement of that he might lose, or the excitement of barely evading the risks and consequences that come with losing. Addiction to gambling and addiction to the danger of it all, to him, is one and the same. He treats his relationship with his lusty girlfriend likewise, he seems to be driven at putting himself in situations of nearly losing her. Both ways for him and her, they don’t seem to have a healthy relationship. They seem to be living in a shallow world where they both get turned on by high drama. If she had any sense, she would quit him.
None of this is played with clichés. The film dodges stereotyping and simple psychology and is instead very uncompromising in portraying tunnel vision. Axel has become a man who ruins any chance of cleaning up his debts when he can. Instead, he has taken that money and parlayed it. As a result, Axel is rounded up by collectors and thrown into a basement to await a punishment from a Mafioso. He is terrified, but even then, he is probably considering how he could throw himself into other danger if he happens to find a way to talk his way out of that one. He does think he’s smart enough to out-negotiate the Mafioso and that he’s gonna get out of there. He certainly has the overstuffed ego to think he will.
I fear the new remake with Mark Wahlberg, coming out in December 2014, will turn the character’s dark predicaments into an exciting lark. Maybe it will still work as entertainment, but I doubt it will fascinate the way this 1974 film does. In recent years, “Rounders” with Matt Damon and Edward Norton was a guilty pleasure movie about betting your way out of the gutter. “Owning Mahowny” was a much more serious accomplishment of gambling with money one doesn’t have, with Philip Seymour Hoffman in a masterful performance of a schlub who likes the gambling tables and nothing else. What I admire about 1974’s “The Gambler” is that Caan is already a stud trying to be superstud because being anything less is boring. He stops being cognizant of how unreal the high stakes really are.
The film was written by James Toback (the remarkably gritty crime drama “Fingers” in 1978 became his directorial debut) who says he based it upon personal experiences. Karel Reisz was the director.
111 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / ADDICTION / LATE NIGHT CHILLS