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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
California Split (1974)

"Listen. You let a man rub some hot shaving cream on your ribs....you can take a shot with him at the track."
- Charlie Walters (Elliott Gould)

Review By: Robert Edwards  
Published: November 01, 2004

Stars: George Segal, Elliott Gould
Other Stars: Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles, Edwards Walsh, Joseph Walsh, Jeff Goldblum
Director: Robert Altman

MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 01h:45m:24s
Release Date: November 02, 2004
UPC: 043396030947
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

You'd be hard pressed to find a director who has explored more film genres than Robert Altman. In the 1970s alone, he tried his hand at war films, the Western, European arthouse, family comedies, and romances, just to name a few. The high point of this, his most fertile decade, is without a doubt 1975's Nashville, a sprawling, sardonic look at the country-western music subculture, in which multiple characters and plot lines intersect and interweave in a complex and fascinating film.

Altman's previous movie, California Split, is Nashville's exact opposite, a character study that concentrates on two protagonists, who occupy the vast majority of its screen time. Bill Denny (George Segal) has a respectable job working for a magazine publishing firm, but when he meets Charlie Walters (Elliott Gould) at a poker match, all bets are off. Charlie's the antithesis of Bill, and we quickly learn that gambling—from his time spent in casinos, to betting on himself in a pickup basketball gameódefines his life and his expectations. Drawn by the excitement and his ever-increasing adrenaline rush, Bill becomes fast friends with Charlie, and we watch as the two become increasingly co-dependent, via their experiences at the racetrack, a shared interest in working girls Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and Susan (Gwen Welles), and a trip to Reno that will test both their bond and Bill's seemingly unassailable interest in gambling.

In the commentary, Altman says that California Split is his least plot-driven film, and while that may be debatable, this is a great example of how concentration on two protagonists can result in a fascinating character study. Screenwriter Joseph Walsh is responsible for many of the highlights of the film, including a scene where Charlie refuses to give a robber all of his winnings and offers him half instead, but filming in sequence allowed Altman to take advantage of the many improvisational scenes, and it's through these scenes that we gain most of our insights into the personality of both of the leads. Segal and Gould's quick wit are responsible for the amusing conversation where they both try to remember the names of the Seven Dwarves (surely an influence on Quentin Tarantino's extensive pop-culture name-dropping in Pulp Fiction and beyond), but it's the continuity filming that allowed Altman to take advantage of this spontaneous creativity.

An addiction to gambling might like a fairly serious topic, but in California Split,, humorous sequences abound. Bill wants Charlie to leave him alone and stop cramping his style on their trip to Reno, so he blows him off with nary a dime, and we see Charlie in the background desperately trying to arrange a line of credit with the casino's cashier, while in the foreground a janitor finds some change in a slot machine, and—his furtive glances make it obvious that he's not supposed to be doing this—he tries his luck with the one-armed bandit, to no avail. And when Charlie and Bill want to take Barbara and Susan out for a night on the town, they won't let an already-scheduled dinner between the two girls and their transvestite friend Helen (Burt Brown) intervene. All it takes is a quick flash of their badges, as they pretend to be vice cops, and the desperate Helen forgets about the $150 she's promised to each of them just to treat her to a night out, where she can flatter herself that she's just one of the girls, in a sequence that's both uncomfortably touching and quite funny at the same time.

If you look hard enough, you can find a gay subtext in just about any buddy movie, but Altman and Walsh emphasize it so much that it becomes more text than "sub." Charlie and Bill "meet cute" (although this being the heterosexual version, it involves a punch-up), and their relationship is sealed in a fairly erotic scene where they rub heated shaving cream on each other's chests to alleviate the pain of their bruises, the result of a shared fight. Charlie heads off to Mexico, disappearing from Bill's life, and when he finally re-appears outside his window a few days later, Bill has a major hissy fit, and it's obvious that he's missing his partner. At the height of their winning streak, the two even share a kiss on the lips, in a scene that would definitely be remarked upon in the early 1970s. From the commentary, it's certain that Walsh was well aware of the implications of his scenario, whereas Altman's silence on the topic either indicates his lack of awareness or (more likely) an unwillingness to be candid.

In a film that's filled with great performances, it's not necessary to single out Segal or Gould, so winningly convincing in both their scripted and improvised scenes. Instead, this reviewer would prefer to cast his spotlight on Gwen Welles. In a small part in Nashville, she's heartbreakingly convincing as a would-be country singer who slowly realizes that she hasn't been hired for an audition, but rather for a strip-tease, as her crude and jeering audience eggs her on to disrobe. Her role in California Split as a naïve, seemingly oft-disappointed hooker is hardly less touching, and it's a shame that Welles hasn't been in more films.

California Split is a great movie, and if anyone other than Altman had directed it, it would probably be that director's best work. Altman sets the bar so high that even this movie, which is usually unjustifiably overlooked, is a great film, and kudos to Columbia for finally making it available on DVD.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The slightly inaccurate colors are typical of films of the '70s, but skin tones are good. There's a fair bit of grain, but black levels are good, and there are no distracting compression artifacts.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Altman's multi-tracked audio comes through clearly despite the limited fidelity. There are a few scenes where it's difficult to make out the dialogue, but this is clearly intentional and not a limitation of the transfer.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Japanese with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Easy Rider, The Company, Big Night
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Robert Altman, writer Joseph Walsh, and stars Elliott Gould and George Segal
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Altman is joined by scriptwriter Joseph "Joey" Walsh and stars Elliott Gould and George Segal for a commentary track that is continuous, except for brief interludes where they pause to appreciate a few select scenes. From their occasional attempts to recall details, it's obvious that they haven't seen the film for a while, but this is a relaxed and amiable chat. Altman gives us details of location shooting versus constructed sets, and claims that this is his first film to use the Lions Gate 8-Track Sound System (which seems at odds with the multi-tracked soundtrack from M*A*S*H). Walsh explains how many of the scenes in the film were based on his own experiences, as well as those of his relatives, and explains some of the character motivation. There are some amusing anecdotes, such as how they forced newbie George Segal to spend a night gambling his own money, which to their dismay unravelled when he won. While not the most enlightening of commentaries, it's enjoyable and reasonably informative.

Trailers for Easy Rider and Big Night are presented full frame, and Altman's latest movie, The Company, is shown in an anamorphic 2.35 transfer.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Robert Altman, drawing on his own experiences and those of his scenarist Joseph Walsh, comes up with a great movie that's equal parts script and improvisation. This is not only a great character study, but a penetrating look into the gambling subculture. Extras are minimal, but the tranfer is good.


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