Made at a time when most screenwriters, actors and directors used to put a lot of their own personal experiences and heart into the films they worked on, Karel Reisz’s criminally overlooked The Gambler presents the kind of gritty, character-driven 70s filmmaking that always gives me the kicks. James Caan stars as Axel Freed, an English literature professor who also happens to suffer from a severe addiction to gambling. When the film opens, we catch him at a gambling joint where he has just lost $44,000. What follows is, naturally, him in an agitated state of mind driving around with the screenplay showing us bits that reveal to us – and which Axel recalls – a conversation he had before in the same joint with his pal Hips about keeping his gambling addiction in check. Hips tells him: “We shouldn’t laugh about this. You are the last person in the world I don’t want anything bad happen to.” What does that mean? Consequences. Some serious consequences for Axel if he doesn’t find a way to come up with $44,000.
Axel is so obsessed with gambling that he does it even when his car is stuck somewhere on the road. He gets out of the car and walks over to a bunch of African-American kids playing basketball and bets some money there too. He loses and they are so grateful. He is teaching Dostoyevsky and the like and simultaneously indulging in philosophical discussions abou the characters in these books with this students at the college. We can observe that Axel sees some parallels between him and these characters. He has a good-looking girlfriend who stands by him but doesn’t really understand Axel fully. He informs his mom, a successful doctor, about the pickle he is in and needless to say, this upsets her. He lets her know that she might have to help him out soon. She asks him if she has become such a failure that she has to see a son grown up with the morals of a snake. He has a grandfather who is a successful businessman and at times reminds you of another popular movie character that another Caan character shared the screen space with two years ago, Vito Corleone in The Godfather.
Axel is too proud to ask his grandfather for money. He, however, manages to get half of the money he owed, from his mother with a promise that he’ll clear his debt as soon as possible. But being the kind of reckless character that he is, he puts all of that into a poker game at Las Vegas. He wins some but loses it again on some basketball game bet. The mafiosos don’t like the way things are going and get hold of him. They present him with a proposition and this leads to one of the tensest, most gripping sequences written in motion picture history. Caan seems like an odd guy to play a college professor but that’s exactly the point. This is a man who looks like some thug masquerading as a college professor, and even his character feels the same way. This is someone who seriously needs help but continues to entertain his unhealthy obsession with danger and losing. But at the same time, he also loves winning. At one point, he tells Hips that playing safe bets doesn’t get his juices flowing and it’s the riskier ones that excite him more. What can you say to a character like that?
Caan’s performance, as always, is so remarkable in that it’s almost tangible. Each nervous tic, mannerism and eye movement is so convincing that you feel as if you are in his shoes, experiencing his life yourself. The level of anxiety that he conveys, especially in the final scenes, is so intense that it makes you wonder if any other actor could’ve done the job better. Even though he plays a frustrated character, the performance is quite subdued compared to what he has done in The Godfather or Thief. However, in one scene, we get to see him unleash his inner Sonny Corleone. Caan is aided by an impressive bunch of supporting cast that features the likes of James Woods (this is one of his earlier roles), Burt Young, Paul Sorvino of Goodfellas fame (who plays Hips) and other actors who would later show up in some of Sidney Lumet’s and the Coen Brothers’ films. The film was produced by two guys – Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff – who has produced a lot of Scorsese’s films such as Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street and even the recent relatively inferior remake of The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg.