James Caan is THE GAMBLER
Karel Reisz’s 1974 drama The Gambler looks at the obsessive compulsive sickness of gambling addiction. James Caan stars as Axel Freed, a highly intellectual college professor who teaches classic literature. What’s most intriguing is his dual nature which has him explaining the writing of Dostoyevski one minute then carousing with characters on the seedier side of the city the next. Axel’s need to gamble seems to give him a kind of invincibility but also a kind of madness. His girlfriend Billie (Lauren Hutton) loves him but she is becoming disallusioned by his inconsistent availability and violent mood swings. Axel’s bookie is Hips (Paul Sorvino) a friend that can’t seem to get through to him about his reckless lifestyle. Axel has one hero in his wealthy grandfather (Morris Carnovsky) a man who came to America with nothing and built his own furniture business. At his eightieth birthday party, Axel recites the story of his life to the guests and its clear how much he admires him.
Axel finally gets himself in serious debt with the Mafia for $44,000 and is forced to goto his mother (Jacqueline Brooks) for the money. She is troubled by his state of mind but sees his desperation and comes through (look for an early appearance by James Woods as a stuffy bank manager). Axel immediately uses the dough not to pay off the bookie but to go on a trip to Vegas with Billie. Fortunately he’s able to win big but then suddenly loses it all on basketball bets. The scene with Axel sitting in the tub listening to the radio as he realizes what’s just happened is excruciating and shows what psychological effect gambling has on him. In a last ditch effort to get the money back to save his skin, he approaches one of his students who’s a basketball player, and asks him to take part in a lucrative points shaving scheme. What becomes apparent is that Axel is on a fast track to self destruction as he is addicted to losing not winning.
The Gambler was based on autobiographical events in the life of screenwriter James Toback who like Freed worked as a college lecturer and was a gambling fiend. It was originally set to star Robert DeNiro but when Director Karel Reisz was hired on he selected James Caan as the lead instead. Along with Michael Mann’s Thief, The Gambler is easily one of James Cann’s finest performances in his career. He brings such intensity and authenticity to the role that is just brilliant. James Toback would go on to make his directorial debut with Fingers (1978) starring Harvey Keitel, another tale of a character with a dual personality that merges the criminal and the artist.
The film was remade in 2014 by Rupert Wyatt and starred Mark Wahlberg in the role James Caan played. It was a modest success but the original remains a classic of the 70s New Hollywood.