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Paramount Studios presents
The Gambler (1974)

"If you're smart, you'll play these games yourself. You can't lose. Why? Because I'm betting on them that's why."
- Axel Freed (James Caan)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: May 16, 2002

Stars: James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton
Other Stars: Morris Carnovsky, Jacqueline Brookes, Burt Young, Vic Tayback, James Woods, Dick Schaap, Chick Hearn, M. Emmet Walsh
Director: Karel Reisz

MPAA Rating: R for rough language, brief nudity, some violence
Run Time: 01h:50m:51s
Release Date: May 14, 2002
UPC: 097360867848
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- BB-C D-

DVD Review

Welcome to the first day of class, students. I'm your professor, Santino Corleone.

Maybe that's a little over the top, but The Gambler came not long after James Caan's virtuoso turn in The Godfather, and here the actor has parlayed that into top billing. He portrays Axel Freed, a professor of literature at a Manhattan university—it's clearly modeled on Columbia, though it seems to have been shot at Barnard, and is called New York College—with, you guessed it, a hideous gambling problem. He'll bet on anything, and is forever looking for action—in one memorable sequence, he takes the basketball court at a playground, and challenges the best player to a game of one on one. His opponent doesn't have any money, but Axel takes his action anyway, wagering $20 against a dime. (Axel loses.)

It's tough to cover your losses on a professor's salary, and Axel is in deep, to the tune of $44,000. (As his bookie reminds him: "It ain't just numbers.") Axel's efforts to get out from under his debt and his addiction make up the bulk of this movie, which is more successful as a character study than as a story. Caan is good, but it isn't a part with great range; also, maybe it was the 1970s, but it's hard to buy him as an academic, especially with his shirts unbuttoned to his navel, during class.

Axel tools around New York in his sweet baby blue Mustang convertible, and has to hit up his mother for some cash—she's underplayed nicely by Jacqueline Brookes, who can't quite understand what happened to her boy: "Axel, have I been such a failure that I raised a son to have the morals of a snail?" She cashes out at the bank, but instead of paying down his debt, Axel wagers with that, too, which of course only makes the hole that he's in even deeper.

One reason the drama sort of ambles along instead of building to a climax is that there isn't a single bad guy or group of bad guys shaking down Axel for the money he owes, but rather a series of characters at various levels of criminality with whom Axel is unwisely doing business. The up side to this is that it provides a chance for some familiar actors to show up and give nice little performances. Axel's principal bookie is Hips, played by Paul Sorvino, and the screenplay goes all out in giving him colorful invective to use with those who aren't ponying up the dough: "I'll come over there right now, throw lye in your eyes. I'll boil your lungs in oil. You dirty, lowdown, stool pigeon, motherf***ing scumbag degenerate dog, die!" Burt Young, not far away from portraying Rocky's brother-in-law Paulie, plays the muscle man for a loan shark, and he takes particular relish in meting out punishment. And the enforcer in the last portion of the movie is played by Vic Tayback—though he's reasonably menacing, it's hard to see this actor as anyone other than Mel the cook from the sitcom Alice. Two other notable actors turn in quality work in brief scenes: M. Emmet Walsh as another inveterate gambler, and James Woods as an officious bank employee.

Things certainly go badly for Axel, but the meandering quality of the story means that it doesn't have the cumulative power of an addiction movie like The Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas. James Toback's script does have some sharp psychological insights along the way, though, especially about how addicted gamblers secretly wish to lose, no matter what they say. "I like the threat of losing," Axel says, and "I love winning, even though it never lasts." And in terms of its story, it's sometimes short on consequences: for instance, the movie is missing what you'd think would be the necessary scene of Axel telling his mother that no, he didn't use her money to pay off his debt, but blew it on a bad bet on the Harvard-Brown game. (It's a measure of the depths to which Axel has sunk that he's betting $15,000 at a pop on Ivy League basketball.)

There are also some uneasy ethnic issues at work in this movie. The out-of-left-field concluding scene only confirms the suspicions raised earlier that the filmmakers are deeply afraid of black people, but there's also an undercurrent of suspicion between Axel's debtors, who are all Italian, and his family, who are Jewish. Axel even brings around his shiksa goddess of a girlfriend, played by Lauren Hutton, for inspection by the great patriarch, his grandfather (Morris Carnovsky). Grandpa is more than pleasant with her, but in a private moment tells Axel to break it off, for she is "not for a man of character and virtue. Not for a Jew." (Hutton is little more than arm candy for Caan in this movie, and instead of giving her a character to play, all she gets is a Texas A & M pennant on her apartment wall.) I don't want to overstate the case, because it's more about Axel's problem leading him to slumming than it is about ethnic divisions. But still, I think the movie overdoes it—a typical example is one of Axel's lowlife (Italian) pals making what for him is a generous offer: "Hey, Axel, you wanna f*** my girlfriend? She's $60 on the street, for you, nothing." With friends like this, who cares what the spread is on the Laker game?

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The colors have faded with the years, and while the anamorphic transfer is a pretty clean one and the color and black levels are consistent, lots of the movie looks washed out. A relatively small amount of debris appears on the image.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: Mono track is limited in its capacity, but dialogue is clear and the dynamics are pretty well proportioned.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The disc is barren of extras but for the thirteen chapter stops.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

The Gambler comes from a time of some of the best studio moviemaking in Hollywood history, and if it doesn't reach the heights of The French Connection or The Conversation, it's still a creditable effort. It's a film stronger on atmospherics and behavior than on story, but it's a pretty astute little character study, hampered by a couple of missteps in the plot.


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