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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Movie Review: The Gambler (1974)
I rarely do this, but The Gambler gets 5 out of 5 stars from me. In my mind, it is truly one of the great movies of our lifetime. 


The Gambler is a 1974 movie about gambling addiction. It is very raw and real. In my mind it is the definitive movie about any addiction. 

Lauren Hutton as Billie, Axels' beautiful girlfriend

James Caan plays Axel Freed, a New York City English professor with a very rich grandfather, a beautiful girlfriend (Lauren Hutton) and a loving mother who is a doctor. He seems to have it all. He is smart,  he is young, he is good looking and he has the world at his feet. But he is also addicted to the "rush" of gambling. 

He doesn't bet to win. He bets to feel the rush and be on the edge. He doesn't want sure winners.


"I could have wiped the floor with your ass, by playing just the games I knew I could win...If all my bets were safe there just wouldn't be any juice."

From start to finish, this movie shows how a seemingly intelligent man like Axel Freed has zero control over his addiction, to the point he destroys his mother, his relationship with his girlfriend and his integrity. He continually loses his temper with just about everyone when he is out of control and at times completely risks his life and the lives of those he loves. 

 James Toback wrote the script based on his personal experiences and his love for Dostoyevsky. He based some of it on  Dostoyevsky's short novel The Gambler.

 "After graduating from Harvard in 1966 I taught literature and writing in a radical new program at CCNY .... Most of all, I gambled — recklessly, obsessively and secretly. It was a rich, exciting double life with heavy doses of sexual adventurism thrown in for good measure. Inspired by the life and work of my literary idol, Dostoyevsky, I embarked on the writing of The Gambler intended originally as a novel. Half way in, it became clear to me that I was seeing and hearing the “novel” as a movie and I abruptly decided to turn it into one"

 -James Toback

James Caan himself was battling a very strong cocaine addiction while this movie was being made and he brought an edge only a true addict could bring to the role. Caan was not the choice of Toback to play the lead. He wanted a young Robert Deniro, but director Karel Reisz refused to direct the movie if Deniro was to play the lead. While Deniro is and was a great actor, even though he was virtually unknown at the time, he could not have played this role in the way Caan did. Caan appeared to have it all, the looks and the culture, and Deniro could not portray that. That contrast between having it all and throwing it all away is essential to the movie.

"Bob (Deniro) and I had an instant communion. He read the script. He didn’t just learn it — he digested it. He became Axel Freed. And since Axel Freed was I, he became James Toback. (He even got a Caesar haircut from Carol at Vidal Sasoon because that’s where I had my hair cut and how I wore my since vanished locks.) He wore a navy Cardin blazer with a French collar shirt and jeans because I did. He had the character inside out, up and down, front and rear."

-James Toback

Toback was left with a choice,  in much the same way that his character, Axel Freed had a choice. He had to gamble and decide which side of the bet to be on. Did he take his chances, stick to his guns and insist on Deniro, or did he give in to the directors wishes to get the film made? 
Unlike his character in the movie, Toback wasn't a careless addicted risk taker at that point. He knew he was risking his writing future if he stood his ground. In the end, it was explained to him that he needed Reisz to get the film made and if that is who the director wanted, he would have to give in.

 "I knew Karel well enough to know that any further entreaties on my part would be fatally counterproductive. Later I called DeNiro and gave him a virtual transcript.

“Jim,” Bob said in a state of high agitation, “the guy didn’t even let me read. You’ve gotta get him to let me read.”
“I can’t,” I said. “He won’t do it.”
“You don’t know the business the way I do. You’ve gotta tell him you won’t work on the movie if he doesn’t let me read.”
“He’ll quit.”
“No. He won’t. He wants to make the movie.”
“Yes. But not with you. I don’t get it myself. I’ve never seen him so resistant.”
“I’ll tell you something else,” DeNiro said. “The changes you made are all wrong. He got you to turn a great script into something not nearly as good.”

 -an exchange between Toback and Deniro as recounted by Toback

In the end he did give in and I think he bet on the right actor. Although I love Deniro, he would never have been as good as Caan was. Caan made the movie with his portrayal.

As a last thought, I will say that even then you could see that Paul Sorvino, who played his bookie contact, was a very serious actor who would go places. This was one of his earliest prominent roles, and again, he is the type that plays this role very well.

The only fault I could find with the movie was the last scene, which seemed contrived and while relevant didn't seem to fit the tone of the whole movie. You can decide for yourself if my assessment there is accurate.
If you have never seen the movie, I highly recommend checking it out. 


  1. News of first time screenwriters who pen spec scripts based on their own personal life experiences and actually – miraculously, really - see the film get made and released are always inspiring. The ones that always spring to mind for me are Robert Mulligan with Summer of 42; Douglas Day Stewart with An Officer and A Gentleman; and James To back with The Gambler.

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